By Erika Saunders, Unity Church member
It was born in Cleveland.
It was born in frustration.
It was born in love.
It was born in a cross-pollination between the Movement for Black Lives and Unitarian Universalism.
Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism was birthed in all these places and more.
What is Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU), you ask? In short, BLUU provides “information, resources and support for Black Unitarian Universalists and works to expand the role and visibility of Black UUs within our faith.” Through a variety of initiatives, BLUU connects faith with direct liberation work and a more inclusionary vision of Unitarian Universalism. As BLUU organizer Leslie Mac told the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), “I have a dream that Black people will know they can go to any UU church and be welcome,” she said. “I can’t say that now.” Along with Leslie Mac, BLUU’s organizing collective includes Takiyah Nur Amin, Lena K. Gardner, Kenny Wiley, CDR Royce W. James and Elandria Williams.
The seeds of BLUU germinated at the Movement for Black Lives Convening in Cleveland in July 2015, where Black UUs talked about their faith, whether Unitarian Universalism had a place within the Movement for Black Lives and conversely, whether black lives had a place with Unitarian Universalism. Some of those present felt alienated from Unitarian Universalism, and concerned that their faith communities weren’t equal to the task of providing support for the transformative, challenging work of racial justice. Following these conversations, members of what would become the BLUU organizing collective reached out to one another to form both a recommitment to Unitarian Universalism and a dedication to creating a growing edge of their faith – including a new set of principles that would embody and expand Unitarian Universalism’s spiritual and practical ways of being in the world.
The seven principles of BLUU are:
Principle #1: All Black Lives Matter.
Queer Black lives, trans Black lives, formerly incarcerated Black lives, differently-abled Black lives, Black women’s lives, immigrant black lives, Black elderly and children’s lives. ALL BLACK LIVES MATTER and are creators of this space.
Principle #2: Love / Self-love is practiced in every element of all we do.
Love and self-love must be drivers of all our work and indicators of our success. Without this principle and without healing, we will harm each other and undermine our movement.
Principle #3: Spiritual growth is directly tied to our ability to embrace our whole selves.
A principled struggle must exist in a positive environment. We must be honest with one another by embracing direct, loving communication and acknowledgment of all that we are and all that we hope to be. The spiritual growth of UUs of color is directly tied to our ability to stand in the truth that black lives matter, both in the wider world, and just as importantly, in our UU congregations.
Principle #4: Experimentation and innovation must be built into our work.
Embrace the best tools, practices, and tactics, and leave behind those that no longer serve us. Evaluation and assessment must be built into our work. Critical reflection must be part of all our work.
Principle #5: Most directly affected people are experts at their own lives.
Those most directly affected by racial injustice and oppression should be in leadership, at the center of our movement, and telling their stories directly.
Principle #6: Thriving instead of surviving.
Our vision is based on the world we want, and not the world we are currently in. We seek to transform, not simply to react.
Principle #7: 360-degree vision.
We honor the past struggles and wisdom from our elders. The work we do today builds the foundations of movements of tomorrow. We consider our mark on future generations. Acknowledging the ways in which a Supremacist society diminishes us ALL is a critical part of the work of the Movement for Black Lives.
One example of BLUU’s work is its involvement in the #ReviveLove tour this past autumn. The tour brought an energizing combination of music and activism to Knoxville, Nashville, New Orleans, Saint Louis and Atlanta, and was organized by BLUU along with Standing on the Side of Love and Reverend Sekou and the Holy Ghost, a gospel and neo-blues band. The #ReviveLove tour “provided a spiritual offering to the movement” and space for Black leaders and supporters to reflect and replenish, says organizer Lena K. Gardner. “It lived out the deepest values of our faith, by providing musical sustenance, as well as training and support, for organizers in local communities.”
In October, BLUU presented to the UUA Board of Trustees about its work and goals, and the UUA committed $300,000 in immediate support to BLUU, with the promise of an additional $5 million over the long term. According to Lena K. Gardner, "The lead organizers are bringing people together in March at the first ever BLUU convening in New Orleans so that Black UUs from across the country can come and be a part of building the collective. We want many voices to have a role and input in building BLUU and utilizing the financial resources that the UUA has committed."
What is Unity’s role? Unity has been, and can continue to be, a fortifier, a supporter, and a safe and sustaining place for BLUU and its work, as well as other racial justice efforts. In May 2016 Unity became BLUU’s fiscal agent and served as such until the UUA provided initial funding and became the fiscal agent in February 2017. According to organizer Lena K. Gardner, “Unity has led by saying yes, by looking for ways to say yes. Unity has been able to be flexible, to find routes around logistical challenges, and more UU churches need to step up this way.”
Perhaps, for Unity, attention to BLUU’s Principle #5 is most critical: the people most directly affected by oppression are the experts on their own lives, therefore must be leaders in directing the movement’s work. For those of us who reside most often in positions of privilege, this means finding ways to be effective followers and learners, even when that feels uncomfortable or alien. Christena Cleveland, professor at Duke Divinity School, wrote recently in an essay called “How to be last: A practical theology for privileged people,” “Justice and equity work should be led by the marginalized — by those who have firsthand knowledge of the unjust systems that are in need of dismantling. If the marginalized lead, then the role that privileged people play is a supportive one. However, when privileged people are invited to play a supportive role in justice and equity work, they often feel disoriented, marginalized and role-less. Since they’re not ‘leading’, they don’t know what to do. Since they don’t have a ‘leadership’ role, they don’t believe they have a valuable role to play . . . Because leadership and high social status often go hand-in-hand, we are socialized to see leadership roles as inherently more valuable than non-leadership roles. The effect is that — in addition to not knowing how to play supportive, non-leadership roles — privileged people have a difficult time recognizing the social value and theological importance of such roles.” When those of us who have privilege exercise humility and let go of that disorientation, we free ourselves to grow into new understanding of the spiritual and practical value of the supporting role.
No matter what our respective roles or how we place ourselves within our communities’ struggles, perhaps we may all embrace and echo Lena K. Gardner’s assessment of her work: “it’s a continual coming back to love, learning more deeply about what it is to love each other in this world.”
Beloved Community Resources
Unity Justice Database
Team Dynamics House of Intersectionality
Anti-Racism Resources in the Unity Libraries Collection
Creative Writers of Color in Unity Libraries
The History of Race Relations and Unity Church, 1850-2005
Beloved Community Staff Team
The Beloved Community Staff Team (BCST) strengthens and coordinates Unity’s antiracism and multicultural work, and provides opportunities for congregants and the church to grow into greater intercultural competency. We help the congregation ground itself in the understanding of antiracism and multiculturalism as a core part of faith formation. We support Unity’s efforts to expand our collective capacity to imagine and build the Beloved Community. Here, we share the stories of this journey — the struggles, the questions, and the collaborations — both at Unity and in the wider world.
The current members of the Beloved Community Staff Team include Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, Rev. KP Hong, Rev. Lara Cowtan, Barbara Hubbard, Drew Danielson, Laura Park, Lia Rivamonte and Angela Wilcox.