We are presenting another installment of stories by UUs impacted by the current intolerance that has swept the denomination. We feel it is important that the true human cost suffered by intolerance should be known. We included several such stories in Used to Be UU. In October 2022, we published a similar personal account on this website.
We have discovered that publishing such stories has a cost as well. Following our October publication, Jay, a Director of the Unitarian Universalist Study Network (formerly the UU History and Heritage Society), was expelled from his board seat.
We also ask that readers refrain from sleuthing about to discover names and places masked for privacy concerns. The story below should stand by itself.
The Illiberal “Liberalism” of the Unitarian Universalist Church: How I was a Victim of Cancel Culture in a UU Church in which I was the Music Director
By Guest Contributor
“All white people are racist.”
It is check-in time at our weekly Unitarian Universalist Church staff meeting where I serve as music director. When it was her turn to check in, the outgoing interim minister said, “All white people are racist.”
She was projecting her frustration with her newly formed anti-racism group at the church. This frustration was rooted in the dissenting response she received from some members of this new anti-racism group when she shared her “all white people are racist” sentiment. Now, she was repeating this sentiment to her fellow staff members. “All white people are racist,” as if it was as apparent as “All water is wet.” As if to say that anyone questioning such a statement must, at best, be stupid and at worst be the cause of all racism in our country for the past 400+ years.
I figured I would let it go. In my 28 years as a church musician in various denominations, I’ve often heard clergy and other church leaders make statements I don’t believe in. It was July 8, 2020, and the church year should have ended over a month ago. I was weary and ready for a summer break.
We moved on to the item on the agenda, discussing the congregational survey results as to how we will “do church” during this pandemic. The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, had recommended that UUs not meet for in-person worship until May 2021.
Later in the meeting, the newly-hired-but-not-yet-on-the-payroll minister, a 33-year-old man, also in attendance at the staff meeting, repeated the outgoing interim minister’s early expressed sentiments. “All white people are racist.”
This time, I couldn’t let it go.
I spoke out, “I disagree. I was at a Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network conference a couple of years ago, and several of us had gone out for lunch; among the group was a black friend who thanked me for not being prejudiced. Surprised by her words, I said, ‘Of course! Why would I be prejudiced?’ She replied that she had encountered many white people in her lifetime who pretended not to be prejudiced when, in fact, they really were. “
The Director of Religious Education (DRE) countered, saying, “We’re not talking about prejudice. We’re talking about racism.”
“People who are prejudiced often behave in racist ways,” I replied.
The DRE then launched into what I can only describe as a homily.
I will stop recounting the events of this fateful staff meeting for a moment to say that UUs pride themselves on being open to different points of view. Their Unison Affirmation or Affirmation of Faith begins with the words:
Love is the doctrine of this church,
The quest for truth is its sacrament,
And service is its prayer.
That the DRE felt she needed to teach me something because I am, in her opinion, woefully ignorant of the tenets of UUism was insulting and alarming. We hire DREs to teach the young people in the congregation.
Back to the Meeting
The DRE told a story about how she’d gone to a bank to get a cashier’s check. She was not a customer at that bank, so she reminded the clerk that she needed to pay the bank’s fee.
I was suspicious of where she was going with her story, so it was no surprise when she concluded, “If I had been a black woman instead of a white woman, there is no way that I would have been treated as well as I was.”
“You don’t know that!” I said.
She said I was wrong.
I responded that yes, statistically speaking, a black woman making the same transaction might not have been treated as kindly as she had been. But to suggest that this is a certainty is to accuse someone you don’t even know, the bank teller, of being racist.
At this point, our newly-hired-but-not-yet-on-the-payroll minister interceded to further instruct me on where I’ve gone wrong in my thinking. He said, “One of the past ministers at the church was a slave owner.”
“Yes, I’m sure,” I replied, “Unitarians have historically been upper middle-class white people, so that doesn’t surprise me.” I went on, “In Newburyport, the Unitarians and the Congregationalists used to worship together. The Congregationalists said that slavery was immoral, but the Unitarians refused to give up their slaves, so the Congregationalists moved down the street and built their own church. A statue of the noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison stands on the green across the street from the Central Congregational Church. This is history,” I said, “and it’s not your fault.”
I added I am a direct descendant of a couple whose home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. I am filled with pride for their actions, but I cannot take credit for their good work any more than our newly-hired-but-not-yet-on-the-payroll minister can be found guilty because of his predecessor’s role in perpetuating the slave trade.
At this point, mercifully, the time for the meeting to end had arrived.
I have worked for three different Unitarian Universalist churches over the past 23+ years and am very familiar with UU thinking. UUs pride themselves on welcoming different points of view. They do not have a creed, but rather a set of Seven Principles, several of which I include here:
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
I wonder what happened when I was treated so condescendingly at our July 8 staff meeting. It appeared that the Affirmation of Faith idea that “the quest of truth is its sacrament” and the Principle’s aspiration for “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” were reduced to just words; with no significant meaning.
I sought input from my friends by making the following post on Facebook:
“All white people are racist.” This is what I was told at the staff meeting today. I find this statement hurtful. Friends, do you agree?
A deluge of responses followed.
My black friends responded saying, “You? No way,” or “NO.”
The outgoing interim minister, via a text message, told me my Facebook post searching for insight from friends on a distressing situation from the staff meeting was inappropriate. I was instructed to remain silent. The text message read, “It was inappropriate to share something that was said at the staff meeting on your Facebook page.”
What? I was mindful of confidentiality. My post did not mention any staff member or parishioner. I am a staff member at several places and did not mention which staff I was referring to.
I responded to the text message by saying that I thought it was inappropriate for her to make the statement that “All white people are racist” in a meeting in which we were to discuss the feedback from a congregational survey.
The outgoing interim minister did not reply to my concerns.
It Gets Worse
The next day, the outgoing interim minister sent a group email to all staff members, asking about our availability to meet with a mediator. I responded enthusiastically. I looked forward to sharing a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” with the other staff members.
As far as I could tell, I was the only one who responded to the email. There was no meeting, no mediator, no sharing a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
Instead, I received a “letter of warning” from the outgoing interim minister. The tone of the “letter of warning” was mean-spirited. Up to that point, the interim minister and I had gotten along quite well only added to the sting of receiving such a letter.
Remember, this chain of events was initiated by the outgoing interim minister who, unprompted, declared, “All white people are racists.” I consider any statement of “All this is that” to be highly suspect. As a (black) Facebook friend commented, “That statement itself is racist.”
I also took the statement personally. I was hurt and angered that anyone would suggest I was a racist or that anyone who may share a particular skin color could be so widely condemned. Even more ironically, I am technically not entirely “white,” whatever that means. My father was a first-generation American, the son of a man who survived the twentieth century “ethnic cleansing” genocide pogrom in which the Ottoman Empire slaughtered 1.5 million Armenians. My maternal grandparents represent the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASP) part of my heritage.
The mentioning of my ethnic heritage at that July 8 staff meeting was fuel for my fellow staff members’ proverbial fire.
I have been the victim of prejudice due to my own ethnicity, often being mocked by the elders in the Armenian community for being only half-Armenian. “Your parents have watered down the race,” they taunt. I know a handful of Armenian words, one of which is odar. Odar means “other”; it means that one doesn’t belong. When my mother met my father’s family for the first time, they took one look at her and said, “What are you?” She had no idea what they meant. But with her very fair skin, hazel eyes, and tall frame, she certainly looked like an odar to them.
At one time, UUs condemned prejudice in all its forms. Now that aperture has been narrowed.
You can only imagine the discussion at the staff meeting.
The DRE dismissed me, saying, “We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about black and brown people.”
I cannot speak to the experience of black and brown people. I can only speak from my own experience, from whence comes my empathy for people in these marginalized groups.
How people of color in our country have been treated for the past 400+ years is deplorable. No reasonable person could argue with that. In my view, however, saying that “All white people are racist” does nothing to change history or, for that matter, to alter the current plight of our brothers and sisters of color.
Apparently, a staff member had read Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Or, more likely, they became familiar with the book’s premise that white people are racist. The author was a featured speaker at the 2017 General Assembly, that endorsed DiAngelo’s message that all white people are racist was acceptable. With the endorsement by UU leadership, many UUs subsequently adopted DiAngelo’s message.
Rejection of our traditional message of tolerance, UU leadership has created a new religion with its own set of dogma, ever-changing though it may be. Those who reject this new dogma are treated with contempt. Or, in my case, I was sent a “warning letter.”
Get Your Thinking Right
In the warning letter, I was told I had racist thoughts and committed racist actions. I was told I am not allowed to consider myself of mixed race for being half white and half Armenian. My lived experiences of being ostracized by the Armenian community for being an odar are completely negated. The slaughter of my grandfather’s first wife and two children at the hands of the Ottoman Turkish Empire was irrelevant. The denial of my own cultural identity and knowing in my heart of hearts that I am not racist has hurt me immeasurably.
Finally, the outgoing interim minister’s warning letter was clear that if I did not agree with her, I would be fired.
I wrote a lengthy response to the warning letter, which included a quote from John McWhorter’s article titled “The Dehumanizing Condescension of ‘White Fragility.’” He wrote,
The sad truth is that anyone falling under the sway of this blinkered, self-satisfied, punitive stunt of a primer has been taught by a well-intentioned but tragically misguided pastor how to be racist in a whole new way.
To Unitarian Universalists, particularly those in leadership positions, what has happened to our embrace of a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”? Once we respected an opinion other than our own? How about letting me, and others like me, speak about our own experiences about race?
Sensing I had no recourse in a just resolution, I resigned.
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