I have blogged mostly about Buddhism, which is my spiritual home. But my religion is Unitarian Universalism, a faith that encourages members to do the hard work of building their own theology. So on most Sundays I go to a UU church, where I find a community of open-minded individuals who respect each other’s paths. It’s a safe place, except for every once in a while when it’s not.
I found UUism in the mid-1980’s, when I was approaching the age of 40. I had for about 20 years been interested in Buddhism, but UUism gave me the push to go beyond “interested” to becoming a practicing Buddhist.
My first UU church was Community Church of New York, in mid-town Manhattan. I was working then for Mobil Oil (before its merger with Exxon), just a half mile or so from the church, which had a long and proud history in civil rights. About half of the church’s members were African-Americans, some of them the congregation’s backbone, and I was a white newcomer.
Mobil at the time was the largest U.S.-based employer in South Africa, so eventually the building where I worked was picketed by the members of my own church. I’d say hello to the pickets and cross the picket line. It made no sense to me that forcing Mobil to withdraw from South Africa would do anyone any good. We were much more progressive in our working conditions and promotion practices than whatever South African company we’d be forced to sell our assets to.
When I explained this to my church friends, they smiled and shook their heads, but I never felt personally attacked. I was accepted. No one suggested that I was a racist. It was a safe community for me, until…
Just a year or two later, I witnessed one of the darker moments of UU history. A lesbian couple had been selected by the Community Church Search Committee to jointly fill the vacant position of Associate Minister, and the congregation rejected them in a meeting I can only describe as hate-filled. So that church no longer felt safe, but…
After another year or two, I found myself in Connecticut with small children who needed a church. The minister of the nearest UU church was one of the women who had been rejected at Community Church, and as it turned out she helped me through one of the most difficult crises of my life. So I was back to UUism and feeling not only safe, but with a debt to it that I needed to repay.
In 1990, I moved to Virginia and immediately joined the UU Church in Reston, where for a decade I developed my UU lay-leadership and preaching skills as well as my Buddhist practice. In 2000, after a move further west in Virginia, I joined the UU Church of Loudoun, where I remain in what seems like a safe community. Except that…
UUism at the national level is in crisis. It’s a complicated mess and some will object to the way I simplify it, but my feeling of safety is again being threatened and I need to do my own version of speaking truth to power. In a nutshell (pun not intended but appreciated now that I see it), a coup has disrupted the democratic process.
The demands of one UU faction have led to the resignation of the denomination’s democratically elected president (three months before the natural end of his eight years in office), the resignations of the chief operating officer and a department head, and the decision by a parish minister to decline the leadership role to which he had been appointed.
The denomination’s annual General Assembly, at which a new president will be elected, is scheduled for June 21-25, and the new president takes office immediately. But the faction now in control is determined to get what it wants before then, so the Board of Trustees has appointed three interim co-presidents and charged them to give the faction what it wants before the new president is elected at the regularly scheduled General Assembly.
I know that the way I have described the crisis will upset some of my UU friends, but I am in the position of no longer feeling that my religion, at least at the national level, is a safe place. I don’t disagree with much of what the faction in control stands for, but I abhor its tactics. So this time I have decided not to withdraw but to go to this year’s General Assembly and work toward a possible future elected role.
Stay tuned for future announcements.
Note: Understandably, my use of the word “coup” upsets some readers. In my Merriam-Webster, the second definition implies violence and an attempt to take over a government. What happened in UU governance falls under the first definition: “a brilliant, sudden, and usually highly successful stroke or act.” That would be this. I respect Christina Rivera for the integrity it took to speak her truth and hope that she and her supporters can accept that I speak mine out of my love for our shared faith. Her coup, was, of course, followed up by much expressed support, including this.
Note #2, added late evening, April 20: I intended this blog post as a brief look for my usually small and largely non-UU audience about a concern I have about UU governance. I had no idea that I and this post would become a symbol of the faction — yes, that’s a legitimate word — that is seen as resisting racial change in UUism. I left out some details that I otherwise would have included, for example that the eventual outcome in South Africa proved me wrong. Mobil did pull out, and the boycott worked. If you want to learn more about me and my stands on racism, please read my followup, My White Privilege, and my October 2015 posts about the UU anti-racism programs, Why I Flunked Racism 101 and Anti-Racism Part 2.
— Mel Pine (Urgyen Jigme)
Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine