Personal Discomfort and Collective Solidarity

Frequently, part of my job is to amplify calls for solidarity from groups, organizations, and collectives that are leading in various arenas of social justice struggle.  Come to this rally, get trained for this direct action, call this representative, etc.  This morning, I sent out another call to action to offer physical, financial, material and spiritual support to the Water Protectors on the front lines at Standing Rock; specifically, mobilizing people to travel to Oceti Sakowin for the December 4th Interfaith Day of Prayer, as called by Chief Arvol Looking Horse.

Now, although my emails go out to 600+ members of our network, I know that a.) people get a lot of email and very few folks actually read my messages, let alone right away, and so b.) when I get an immediate response from someone to a mass email, I can bet that it’s someone who has a bone to pick with me.

Which is why, when I received a reply about 4 minutes and 37 seconds after I sent the email out, I was not surprised that it was this:

Can’t we come up with a better name than a “Day of Prayer”? Pray to what? Or is this just say [sic] that those who don’t believe in a deity are not welcome?

This was the full content of the email. No greeting, no “I support the Water Protectors and I’m so glad we’re mobilizing to support them,” no “hmmmm, I have a curious question about why you’re using that language…” just this.

The sender, by the way, is a person I don’t know and have maybe only met in person one or two times in a large group context.  He is (I believe) a white, middle-aged, cisgender male who is a member of one of the UU churches here in Minnesota.  I believe he’s been active in several social justice causes, and has done some really excellent work in solidarity with various groups of people in the community. But, the second I read this email, my antennae shot up.  I read in it, as I bet some of you will, a combination of spiritual woundedness and exceptionalism, toxic masculinity, and white fragility.

(Note: For those of you who aren’t Unitarian Universalists, it would be helpful to know that UUs are made up of about 90% people who were raised in some (or no) other religious tradition.  Our folks often come into our congregations yearning for Beloved Community, but nursing spiritual wounds left by the oppressive dogma, exclusionary practice, and harmful theology that is present in too many religious traditions.  As a result, some of our folks are sometimes a bit like trauma survivors — they are easily triggered by even the semblance of things that have caused them injury (like clergypeople, or language like “God” and “prayer” and “worship” and “spirit”), and they have work to do in order to redefine what healthy religious life might look like for them.  And unfortunately, I think we religious professionals and congregations too often do a crap job of helping these folks, but that’s a conversation for another time…)

Anyway. I don’t love spiritual woundedness and white fragility and toxic masculinity.  They are happy bedfellows to one another, but they cause me both rage and distress. So, upon receipt of this email, my immediate reactions were, in order:

1.) F*%k you, dude, and the horse you rode in on.

2.) [Nasty ranting about white fragility and toxic masculinity and UUs thinking we are all unique and delicate snowflakes who deserve to be catered to in every single context]

3.) Can’t I just delete this?

4.) Aw, hell. These are my people. Better get to writing.

I believe that my job as a white person and a clergy person and a person with all kinds of privilege is to collect my people and invite us all to get better together.  I would have much rather ignored it, but I recognize that I have to exercise these muscles of calling in without skirting around the real issues, because I’m going to be asked to use those muscles more and more frequently in the coming times.

I’m posting my response here because it feels important to acknowledge both how much energy this takes, and how absolutely essential it is for those of us who are less directly targeted by injustice to take the time to move each other toward being better and more accountable footsoldiers in the struggle for collective liberation.

I’m also posting it because I rarely see other people — in particular white folks — posting concrete examples of how we’re calling each other in.  Not theoretical musings or self-promotional pats on the back about how we spoke up, but like, actual things we have said to other people in real-life contexts that sometimes work and sometimes don’t.  I don’t know about you, but I wish I had more examples from people I know and trust about what “calling in” really looks like.  Maybe it’s because we’re afraid of being critiqued, maybe it’s because we’re afraid of being seen as fishing for compliments, maybe it’s because we’re not really doing it frequently enough, maybe it’s because white supremacy culture still lives deep within us and tells us that if we’re really good anti-racist allies, we should just know how to do this by ourselves without literally practicing and workshopping this stuff together.

But I’m over all of those versions of the mess, at least today, so here we go:

Dear J——,

I hear in your response a discomfort with the use of the word “prayer,” and your feeling left out or marginalized by that terminology as someone who doesn’t pray, or identify as a theist.

While I fully honor the fact that this language might not work for you personally, and celebrate with you that many of our UU communities are spaces in which we can grapple with the implications of these religious concepts, I want to invite you to think more deeply about what your reaction–and similar reactions from other UUs–might do to prevent us from being culturally competent, spiritually humble, and showing up powerfully in solidarity with indigenous people.

Some context: the “interfaith day of prayer” language comes directly from the indigenous leaders who are on the frontlines of this struggle, who have asked people like me to amplify their call for presence and solidarity. As a white, non-native person, with an understanding the erasure/oppression/cultural genocide perpetrated against indigenous peoples now and in the past, I don’t believe it is my place to alter the language that they use when asking for solidarity from non-native peoples.

Your email said nothing about the content of the Standing Rock leaders’ call for presence and solidarity from a broad and diverse movement of supportive people. Instead, you immediately and without context offered a critique of native leadership’s language choices, and centered your own need to feel comfortable and welcomed. I think this reflects a spiritual woundedness and a centering of self and whiteness that will not help the broader movement for justice and liberation.

I am spending my time writing you back now, instead of organizing people to actually show up at Standing Rock this weekend, because your response is not an uncommon one, and you are a part of my beloved community as a UU. I want Unitarian Universalists to be resilient, culturally competent, spiritually humble people who are able to put our own individual needs aside when necessary to be credible partners with other cultures and religious traditions in building a just and loving world. In order to do that, I believe we need to call one another in to greater spiritual maturity, and deeper analysis of how white supremacy wants to distract us from what really matters and divide us from one another.

So, I am asking you to reflect on your response again. Rather than critiquing the language because it doesn’t work for you, why might that language be important to the Lakota spiritual leaders who are asking for our support? What are they asking for, in a language that might make sense and feel inclusive to you? How might you be supportive of their struggle, even when it is framed in a way that makes you uncomfortable or asks you to translate?

I am here for further reflection and dialogue if that’s helpful. While I don’t know you well, if at all, I assume that we share common core values and commitments as Unitarian Universalists, and as social justice activists. I hope you can hear this feedback, then, with an open heart — we need one another more desperately than ever in these times, and we need to be better together.

Blessings and love,

So. What do you think?  What else could/should I have done?  What have YOU done in similar contexts, and what has worked and what hasn’t?

Let’s share our stories, folks, and try to train each other up and develop a deep toolbelt of strategies and tactics to build more resilient, more powerful people who are all working in healthy ways toward a more just and loving world.