© Karen Sindelar, Beth Schaefer, and Jodie Xiao 2008. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
March 2, 2008

  1. I Will Not Be Silent, by Karen Sindelar
  2. Tell Me a Story, by Beth Schaefer
  3. The True Self, by Jodie Xiao

1. I Will Not Be Silent, by Karen Sindelar

I really do think I've treasured the diversity of our area since I moved here, and of course it's gotten more diverse in those 28 years. When I've pondered moving to a different area, the very first thing I think of that makes me dismiss it, is the fact that the place I'm thinking of probably wouldn't be nearly as diverse as we are here. I wouldn't be able to tolerate that. At the same time in my spiritual community - a place that's very important to me - there is not very much diversity. I could see Mission Peak was predominately white. I hadn't given it a lot of thought; for the most part I just thought the other races probably practice their own, different religions.

When I heard Karin Lin talk about how white our congregation was a year and a half ago, I thought, "Yeah, maybe it's not because of other religions, any more than with white people. I'm on board with that." I immediately expressed interest because I, too, wanted to know if we could discover what was going on.

Being involved in the Racial Awareness and Diversity (RAD) task force opened my eyes a little wider. I hadn't been involved in a forum before to hear feelings from the heart of people of color. We've all heard of, and experienced ourselves, occasions of racial prejudice or discrimination. What I was missing is the impact on everyone touched by whatever the action was. It could be overt, like yelling an epithet at someone, or it could be subtle, like not looking someone in the eye or being polite. It ALL has an impact.

We are all interconnected, and in the words of one of our frequently sung hymns, "what touches one affects us all." When one of us hurts another, even inadvertently, the ripples go far. And so we don't owe it to the people of color, those other people, to fix things, because there ARE no "other people". We owe it to ourselves, because WE ARE ALL ONE.

One thing I discovered was that, as a white person and therefore a person of privilege, I can make a difference being an ally in this work.

The UUA puts on a conference every year, called Now Is The Time, to help motivate and provide tools to get us all thinking and leading in matters surrounding multiracial, multicultural congregations. I couldn't really tell from the pre-material WHAT it was going to be like, or what would even be talked about. The reason I went is because I felt I was involuntarily part of a U.S. system and a world system that isn't serving US. The big US; the only race there is: the human race. The system of worship around money, competitiveness, increasing productivity to infinity, and technology-driven isolation. Heck, I know the system well. I'd had 9 years of learning how to make sales, drive business and impress the boss - before I had my first date. But THIS COMMUNITY (motion around the room) has reminded me what's really important. The interconnected web of life.

Inequality breeds this system. I really want to do what I can in the world - and still get by myself - without perpetuating the system.

What the conference did is permanently prop open my eyes. That doesn't mean I have eyes in the back of my head and see or understand EVERYTHING that ever goes on all around me, all over the world. But boy, am I glad my brain is now in a state of continual awareness of oppression.

The fact that I am conscious and paying attention to equality allows me to CHOOSE to do what I can to NOT support the system. To CHOOSE community. Embracing fellow humans. To CHOOSE to speak up when someone says anything insinuating oppression - racism, classism - anything hinting at "you are other and don't belong here" or "you are 'other' so I can treat you differently". I will call them on it and point it out as soon as it makes rational sense. I'm not doing this because I think I should. I'm not doing this because it makes me feel good. I'm doing it because it's essential if we are to have a future with each other. I truly do believe every person has inherent worth and dignity. I truly do want a world community of love and respect.

Here is something I got from this conference: I cannot be silent. I WILL NOT be silent.

2. Tell Me a Story, by Beth Schaefer

We human beings learn from stories. Throughout human history, we have told one another stories - histories of our ancestors' rituals, fictions and mythologies that educate and entertain, truths about what happened yesterday or last season. Many psychologists believe that our identity development occurs through our narrative development: we learn who we are and how the world works by learning stories and by developing our own stories.

Creating and sharing stories is very human, and is usually enjoyable. But there are some topics we find scary: for example, we don't like to talk about race. Nonetheless, I'm going to tell you some of my stories about race today - some of my experiences and thoughts and feelings. I'm doing this because I believe, and others who have created multicultural-multiracial congregations believe, that telling our stories is an important step in helping a congregation grow into a new role - a role that is a means to an end: That end is living our faith. I want to live my faith, and I believe that each of you do too. So how can each of us be most in alignment with the highest that is in us? Creating an explicitly multicultural and multiracial congregation is one requirement.

The first time I discovered that race could be an issue was in kindergarten. Amidst the Scandinavian-American and German-American Wisconsin kids, Renee looked a bit different. Her skin was a little more cocoa colored, and her short pigtails stuck straight out instead of falling like my blond ones did. I noticed this, but shrugged it off without wondering why. When I later learned that she had one white parent and one black parent, my first thought - always the geneticist - was: Oh! So she's a mixture - light brown. That means that soon every race will be mixed together like paint and every kid will be brown. My matter-of-fact acceptance of Renee soon changed to sadness when I heard that some of the parents of my classmates didn't like Renee's family because of her parents' different colors. I still didn't understand what the problem was, but I learned that race could be an issue, a big issue, among adults.

Some of us in the Building the World We Dream About class have shared such stories of discovering racism. For me, it also feels important to consider what my attitudes had been before I discovered how some others felt. I suspect that some of you also had experiences of completely shrugging off the issue until you learned from someone older the way that you were "supposed" to feel.

When I was a little older, I remember my parents calling me downstairs from my room to meet a visitor one day, a new colleague of my Dad. As I turned the corner I saw a light brown man standing there. And to my surprise, he wore a turban - the kind I had only seen on genies in fairy tale books. I must have looked a bit taken aback. And my mother, never missing a beat, said the most simple and the most brilliant thing: "Beth, this is Mohammed. Mohammed is from Iraq - isn't that interesting?" And because she said it in such a cheerful and matter-of-fact manner, I knew what to do: I smiled at Mohammed, he smiled at me, and we each said hello. He seemed like a nice man. And it was OK to know he and I differed, and that that was intriguing. I began to wonder what he liked to eat in Iraq, a country I'd never heard of before. And I began to wonder why he wore a turban.

When have you had a positive interaction with someone of a different race or culture? An interaction where you both acknowledged that you had your own stories, and that some aspects of those stories were the same (here we were in Madison, Wisconsin; we both obviously knew my parents), and that some aspects were different (we looked and dressed differently; we spoke different first languages; we probably had very different cultural experiences). That, I've learned, is the kind of interaction I treasure most - appreciating that we each have our unique life story, which includes race and culture, and that there are commonalities in all our stories too - we all love our children, for example.

One more story: Just a couple of years ago I had been asked to speak about mental health issues after a church service in Oakland. I had trouble finding the right church and was running a little late. Just as I stepped into the entrance room, the service finished, and a sea of African Americans flowed out of the sanctuary and past me toward another room for coffee. I found myself, juggling boxes of papers and a briefcase, swimming upstream in the crowd, and I realized I was getting sideways glances of surprise and curiosity from all directions. It was an "Aha!" moment for me. This was what it felt to be the "other" - even for just a few quick minutes. I felt self-conscious, awkward, not certain who to turn to to ask for directions, not certain how I would be accepted. I realized: This is how every single one of these people must feel every single day when finding themselves the only person of color in various situations in this largely white culture.

What about you? Have you ever felt like the stand-out, the only representative of your race or culture in the room? Perhaps when you've traveled; perhaps in the Bay Area? When you leave this sanctuary today, remember to comb your memories for any such experience, or for a time you've felt the "other," the odd one out in any situation. I suspect that it will help engender compassion in your heart; it did in mine. It helped me make a move in the right direction toward being explicitly inclusive.

Congregations have their own stories too - events small and large that change them. How would you like to see this story go at Mission Peak?

Whatever change comes, it will be in steps. As one of our speakers said last weekend, "Keep working at learning to tie your shoe - you've got to do it bad before you do it good." So we'll all make mistakes. And that's OK. It will only teach us to forgive others and to forgive ourselves. This is important. I've come to realize that becoming a multiracial-multicultural congregation is not equivalent to a hobby or an interest group; becoming multiracial-multicultural is required to live our faith. Now is the time.

3. The True Self, by Jodie Xiao

As Karen said earlier, when there is a consciousness with regard to equality, we can choose the extent of our own participation or support in a situation. In addition to this, I would like to go further into what Beth discussed - our personal development through narrative and that diversity is a means to an end. I am going to begin where Beth talked about mistakes.

As Beth mentioned, we all make mistakes and this is okay. Actually, this is where I differ a little. Not only are mistakes okay, they are a positive energy in our lives. Fallibility is a reminder that we are human and that we are growing - constantly learning. After all, this is why we are here, in this moment, in this life. It teaches us to have compassion. However, it also does one other thing; it gives us courage! I must begin by saying that if it were not for the mistakes of everyone at the conference (myself included), I would not have learned as much.

Just a little background here. I went to the conference - the UUA 2008 National Conference, Leading Congregations into a Multiracial, Multicultural Future: Now is the Time! - knowing only two things. The first was that I needed to learn something from the conference (and I had no idea what this was exactly). The second was that being a co-facilitator of the Building the World We Dream About course, I better go! J

The conference started on Friday, so I went and sat there all day saying, "I'm supposed to be here. I'm supposed to be learning," and very little happened aside from this. We had a wonderful, lively, entertaining speaker, but I was just not going anywhere - in my head. By the time Saturday rolled around, I was getting rather nervous because I felt as though things were going nowhere.

Then something changed. We started doing a lot of sharing and storytelling. Despite our having to address specific assigned topics, the exercises allowed us a lot more freedom and interaction than we have had the day prior.

During one of these sessions, a woman sitting to my left shared a rather painful moment in her life. This memory and experience stayed with her throughout her entire life. It was the first time she became aware of "the other" and the concept of race. She was five years old at the time - she is seventy-seven now - and she used the N-word when recounting to her father the events of her day (just how her day went at school). Her father was very disappointed and angry. He told her never to use that word ever again in her life! But she didn't know why at the time. Why exactly did he get so angry? Why was it that he was so disappointed in her? She was crying now. I felt horrible and all I could muster was, "Do you remember how you learned the N-word?"

After we came back from break, she was smiling and feeling a lot better. She told me that she had never thought to ask that question and that no one had ever asked it of her. At this time I shared with her the reason why I asked this question: that when we are able to see that we were taught (and ALL of us at some point were) how to think, how to feel a certain way about something, anything, everything - and race is no different - then we can begin to see things differently. It is VERY important that we keep in mind that we were all told stories, taught about race - about how to perceive ourselves and others.

As the day progressed, more and more people shared their stories - their shame and guilt with regard to their thoughts, attitudes and actions surrounding race. Many shared with me their anger and guilt on the subject: first, they were angry that they were hurt at some point; then they were angry that they did not do something; then they were angry that they were angry; and finally, they were ashamed that they felt any of these things.

And then I realized something, that this is what keeps us from being closer - with each other - to truly be interconnected. It was this fear, guilt, shame and anger that keeps us from talking about race (which obviously has an effect on all of us) - from talking to each other. It was at this moment that I realized what the speaker at the conference from the day before was talking about - telling stories, re-telling stories, re-story-ing - to restore our whole selves! When we tell our stories, we give courage to others to come forth and share theirs.

We have this wonderful opportunity to see each of ourselves whole and see this reflected in each other - right here, right now. We can re-story ourselves and our community to the whole - so that each one of us can be our whole, true self, all of the time!

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