Becky Gonzalez-Campoy, Beloved Community Communications Team
“Somatic instead of semantic” is how one participant in Unity’s recent Gender + Faith Retreat described her experience. Instead of focusing on labels and words, people shared how gender defines their lives, determining what they can freely do and what they canNOT safely do.
Thirty people spanning gender identities and several decades in age came together on Saturday, March 19, 2022, to spend the day in a retreat unlike any other Unity has offered. Rather than holding a men’s, women’s, or queer gathering, this event created a safe space for non-binary, queer, and cisgendered members of Unity Church to explore together how gender and faith intersect in their lives.
Registrants completed an interest and demographic survey as well as some reading homework prior to attending to ensure that everyone arrived ready to start on the same page.
Three congregants and three staff members spent 11 weeks planning this event that invited participants to explore their own gender and share on equal footing. They blended movement exercises with conversation. “We didn’t want this to be head space,” explained Laura Park, Unity’s Director of Membership and Hospitality. “We wanted it to be heart space.”
Retreat organizers invited outside consultant Max Brumberg-Kraus from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities to lead the group in exercises to open their hearts and minds to the similarities and differences in their stories.
First, Brumberg-Kraus had participants read various verses of Song of Solomon from the Hebrew Bible. “He asked us to assign a gender to each speaker of these verses,” said Sara Ford, one of the event planners and a participant. This activity opened their eyes to how easily we assume gender without thinking.
Next, participants practiced four body movement exercises to reveal experiences of gender assignment that often interfere with someone’s true identity. “Max had us act out an activity we loved doing as a child that ran counter to others’ expectations of who we should be,” said Ford. “I mimed climbing trees.” Then the rest of the individual’s group mirrored that action to the person demonstrating their activity. Seeing one’s memory reflected turned out to be a powerful and healing tool. Ford noted how this exercise revealed an unconscious increase in physical fluidity for some when they were back in a favorite place, and this time others welcomed and accepted them for who they are.
“It felt like a gift sharing my four movements,” said finn schneider, another congregant planner and participant. “The exercises embodied memory work that accessed the complicated relationship with gender.” Everyone journaled about their experiences afterward.
Ford realized how she herself was guilty of making assumptions about herself based on appearance. “I remember auditioning for one of Unity’s choirs, certain that I was an alto or a tenor,” she said. “When Ahmed [Unity’s Director of Music Ministries] said I fit best as a soprano, at first, I was insulted. Then I realized he was focusing solely on my vocal cords, nothing else.”
The movement-based format eased queer and non-binary participants’ initial concern that they would be educating curious cisgender folks. The exercises allowed everyone to participate on equal ground.
Participants spent much of their time building a foundation of trust among the group, working toward a willingness to be vulnerable with one another. Like schneider, several of the participants were new to Unity Church. Rev. Shay McKay served as chaplain for anyone who needed pastoral care.
This was not a time for answers, rather it was an opportunity to raise questions about what it means to explore gender and faith. While some evaluations yearned for more explicit activities connecting gender with faith in the retreat, other participants described the day as an integrated faith formation experience. “Faith was implicit,” said schneider. “Faith is the entry point, communicating how we enter space together. Everyone came willing to enter and stay in a possibly difficult, uncertain community."
The day concluded with an art project that captured the essence of lessons lifted up and hope for continued growth. “People came up to me after Sunday services now wanting to talk about what’s next,” said schneider.
“The door is now open for further conversation,” said Ford. She noted that her children, who have completed the Our Whole Lives program talk freely about gender and sexuality while the adults typically do not. The Gender + Faith Retreat may play a pivotal role in changing that silence and making Unity a brave place to hold these gender and faith discussions beyond a retreat setting. As many said in their evaluations, one day was just a beginning and participants look forward to deepening their understanding of the gender and faith intersection in themselves and throughout the congregation in future conversations.
To learn more about the intention for the retreat, view the “Gender + Faith Retreat Conversation with Ray Hommeyer, Laura Park, and Shay MacKay” video on the Unity YouTube Channel. For more information about the LBGTQ+ fellowship group at Unity, contact Laura Park, firstname.lastname@example.org, 651-228-1456 x110.
Ray Wiedmeyer, Beloved Community Communications Team
Much was heavy on their hearts when Unity Church member Clover Earl and her longtime friend Danette McCarthy met for lunch after the murder of George Floyd and the uprising that followed. Danette’s daughter lives not far from the George Floyd Global Memorial, known as George Floyd Square, and she pondered the distance between the Square and the State Capitol, Minnesota History Center, and St Paul Cathedral. To confirm her inkling, she drove the distance and found it to be just about nine miles. Just a coincidence perhaps, but nine minutes was the amount of time that George Floyd was held under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer before he died. In Danette’s words, “There are these structures, these symbols of power and history, mostly white, and they are nine miles away from the square.”
Danette’s career in pulling people together through the arts made her ponder what we needed to do to get “square” with our history in which government and church helped codify white supremacy. This led her to the idea of pilgrimage, the idea of walking from one place to the other; a practice she had never embarked upon before. Eventually she would take that walk, that personal pilgrimage of nine miles to see what it would offer. And in her chat with Clover that morning, the idea of personal pilgrimage began to germinate into something much more.
Clover, who had been on Unity Church pilgrimages to Boston and Transylvania to learn of our Unitarian history, knew something of pilgrimage. She saw pilgrimage as a chance to move into a new experience with an open mind and an open heart to seek new understandings. In her words, “over time, we began to see our work together to find clarity and strength as our own pilgrimage of sorts and that we might move that out into the world... and from there the idea of a white folk’s pilgrimage grew.”
They both know that white folks have work to do. But how to move from reading/talking about white privilege and antiracism to a place of deeper understanding? Perhaps a pilgrimage from the places of white comfort (the Capitol, Cathedral, History Center) to a place of Black resistance (George Floyd Square) would be a chance to dig a little deeper. The walk they imagine will give one the opportunity to reflect internally, to process with fellow walkers, and to think more deeply about our own actions for creating a more just world.
Clover and Danette now invite you to a shared pilgrimage called “Hey, White People: A Journey” to walk the nine miles from the Minnesota Capitol to George Floyd Square on Saturday, May 21. There will be four stops on this pilgrimage: the Rondo Commemorative Plaza, the Mississippi River, the Minneapolis Third Police Precinct, and George Floyd Square. In between there will be time to chat, or moments to just ponder the path we are on and the path we all want to create.
The walk will begin at 8:00 a.m. and end around 1:00 p.m. at George Floyd Square. Clover and Danette have asked the Protectors of the Square, a self-appointed safety/security group, how we might best respect the place that has become sacred space to so many. The Protectors will be there to welcome walkers and may share some thoughts with the gathering.
All are welcome on this journey... this pilgrimage. For more details, please visit the Hey, White People, We Have Work to Do! website at www.heywhitepeople.org.
A final thought in Danette’s words, “This is part of our work to do in reckoning how to be part of change. It’s one thing to say you want it…but for me feeling it in my bones and my body seems to be a critical part of making that commitment to live the way that I need to live to heal personally and to help others. I don’t know that I have the words for it yet — maybe they will come.”
Erika Sanders, Beloved Community Staff Team
Unity’s engagement with the wider community happens, in large part, thanks to the work of nine dedicated Community Outreach Ministry Teams. Each team has a distinct focus, such as environmental sustainability, racial justice, or affordable housing, and each team partners with one or more organizations in the community to engage in education and advocacy.
At the beginning of 2021, our teams began a process of reflection and renewal. To learn more about this, I interviewed Rev. Shay Mackay, Coordinator of Community Outreach Ministries at Unity Church.
ES: Tell me how and why the Community Outreach Ministry Teams renewal process began.
SM: In the past, each team reapplied every two years to ensure that the team’s work remained relevant and connected to the congregation and its community partners. In this time of so much transition, as well as deepening antiracist multicultural work in the congregation, leaders decided to ask the teams to reapply and also to engage in a process of reflection. We hoped that the renewal process would expand the ways that team members experience and articulate how their activities connect to their spiritual growth. This renewal process began in early 2021, and I joined the effort in July 2021. We hope it will be completed by June of this year.
ES: What types of reflection are part of the renewal process?
SM: Each team engages in the process a little differently, based on their focus, but in general, they reflect on questions such as:
ES: What are the most joyous things that you’ve seen come out of the renewal process?
SM: The process has generated a lot of wonderful dialogue within teams, and excitement for continuing to grow in this work. For instance, as a result of working with the Double Helix Model, most team members have taken the Intercultural Development Inventory and are working on their individual Intercultural Development Plans.
Each team is looking more closely at its relations with community organizations. They’re asking important questions about how those partnerships are or are not mutually beneficial, what each member wants from the relationship, and what team members’ aspirations are for the partnerships. We all want these partnerships to be authentic relationships of mutuality, and to avoid anything that feels like “white saviorism.” We also believe that these reflections and partnerships will help teams grow in their understanding of whiteness, of their own cultural framework. By interrogating our work we can transform how we engage with others, and it takes our understanding of how we are accountable to ourselves and to others in a much more nuanced, sophisticated direction.
Ultimately, I think that this process is making Unity’s Ends more real and present in our day-to-day work. Being able to articulate who we are and why we do what we do is very powerful.
Watch for Part II of “Renewal and Commitment,” about how one team has been transformed by this process.
Beloved Community Resources
Next Right Actions
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. Dr. Kathy Hurt, Rev. KP Hong, Barbara Hubbard, Drew Danielson, Laura Park, Rev. Shay MacKay, Angela Wilcox, Pauline Eichten, and Erika Sanders.