A Journey Towards the Other America

Sermons by the Rev. Jill Cowie and Steve Farough


As white supremacy ideology makes its way into public policy and the public square, how do we as Unitarian Universalist respond? Leaders of our UU Black Lives movement tell us is the first step towards the “Other America” and the dismantling of white supremacy is to see it and respond to it in all of it’s multiple expressions. You are invited on an antiracist journey made possible because we do it together.

The Sermon, Part 1, by the Rev. Jill Cowie

Tears were in my eyes as I marched down Congress Street last summer with a group of young Jewish activists chanting, “hey hey ho ho, Neo Nazism has got to go.” I never thought that I would be chanting these words in my country. I was mad at our governor and his silence about the appointment of Steve Bannon and all the president’s men with their white identity and far right vision of a society fundamentally determined by race. I realize now that I was mad at myself for beginning to believe the brightly rendered version of democracy this country has declared for itself. I had come to believe that White nationalism and neo Nazism was safely held at bay at the margins of our society. But I was wrong; white supremacy was so mainstream it enabled the ascendency of a white Nationalist to the presidency. And it took the appointment of Steve Bannon to completely remove the blinders from my eyes. I was angry at my complacency.

I learned in seminary that being an anti-racist as a white person begins with understanding white privilege. I learned how People of Color did not qualify for the GI Bill and how they were exempt from insured federal mortgages during the mid twentieth century suburban surge; how private insurers created and still maintain the ghetto with their predatory lending. I learned how mass incarceration impacts the lives of one out of three Black men. But here’s the clincher, four hundred years of preferential treatment created a base of white wealth with all the possibility, protection and permanence that comes with it, twenty times the wealth of black households. Twenty times.*

But still I struggle today to connect how all this enables a white nationalist government. Janay Khan, cofounder of Black Lives Matter, Canada says the problem with focusing on privilege is that it keeps the focus on the individual and leaves the system that enables white supremacy unchecked. A system we know from Charlottesville as violent. But this violence is just the tip of the iceberg. In 2005, the Safehouse Progressive Alliance published the triangle of white supremacy in your order of service that helps me discover where my particular white identity intersects with the expressions of mainstream white supremacy and where I need to engage to end my complicity.

I was raised by liberal parents both from the Midwest whose parents emigrated from Scotland, in the 1880’s and the 1920. My mom was a first generation American, and assimilation was the focus for my grandparents, their children, and the mixed Euro-American communities in which they lived. They gave up their culture, their history, their norms and they learned to be white. I found a signature book from my mother’s second grade class; you know the ones that kid write notes to each other at the end of the year. Her classmates in 2nd grade wrote poems that rhymed with racial slurs. Thandeka, a UU theologian says, no child is born white, its something they learn, my parents learned and they taught me. I was raised “color-blind,” in a white community where my dad bought a house with his GI benefits. I remember seeing a Black man for the first time when I was five as he was part of a work crew fixing the cement in front of our house in Whitefish Bay, WI (a Sundown town, once called Whiteface Bay.) I asked the man, in all seriousness if he had just come back from Florida because of his deep tan.

It has taken years for me to understand the cost and inherent violence of my white color-blind race identity. In my 20’s as an Outward Bound instructor, I lead adjudicated youth on 30-day canoe trips in Florida and Georgia. One class was one-third Latino, in-third Black, and one-third White. The ignored racial tension erupted into violence when a sixteen-year old Girl of Color consumed with anger jumped me from behind and started pounding her fists into my back. Later as a Director of non-profit located in a community college in Southern Maryland, the Latina secretary was so frustrated with my cluelessness she eventually asked for a transfer to work for an African American woman. While in the same job, I also did not stand up for an employee I hired from Pakistan whose accent was at times hard to understand. I fired him when I received reports of dissatisfaction from his coworkers and from our partner organizations primarily because of the language barrier. Sometimes, I weep thinking about him and the misuse of my power. All this was below the surface for me until I took anti-racism classes to help me see my own manifestation of white supremacy and its violence. Looking at the triangle, I know my work is shifting the reality of “color-blindness” as a sound liberal approach to race. And that is why, I am standing here, overcoming the taboos I learned to never talk about race, to tell you that this journey is not about being morally correct, its about becoming fully human. Anywhere you land on this triangle will open for you a world of hurt, yours and others. Your heart will break. But the truth you find there will set you free and call you into relationship with another world rich with humility, forgiveness, gratitude, honesty, and open hearted struggle. I am standing here before you because I need your help to stay in that world, that without you and this church, this denominations and this community’s engagement, normalized white supremacy will grow like cataracts to make the world murky, dim and violent. I want to know, in the months and years to come, where on this triangle do you draw the line? How do you in particular say “No” to white supremacy?

*Ta-Nehisi Coates “The Case for Reparations” Atlantic Magazine, 2014

The Sermon, Part 2 “Creating the Other America” by Rev. Jill Cowie

Anne Braden, social activist from Kentucky during the 1970’s and 80’s said, “In every age, no matter how cruel the oppression, there are those who struggle for a different world, those that envision a world that has never existed. This she says “is the genius of humankind, this is what makes us half-divine.” The question I wish to engage with you over the months to come is how do we as Unitarian Universalist envision and struggle to create this different world? Black Lives Leader Leslie Mac said to our full assembly at GA last June, “Our faith is a lesson in contradictions.” She goes on to say, “We see contradictions in the wave of BLM banners being hung in our congregations around the country, yet in truth many black UU’s don’t feel welcome in our pews. The question for us says Leslie Mac, “is how can we be transformed?” How can we as people of faith, engage in a global movement demanding action towards Black liberation? How do we change to make this struggle real and possible in our lives, and this congregation?”

When White UU’s ask Leslie,”How can I support Black lives?” Her answer is simple and always the same. “Just show up. Show up again, and again and again until it becomes a habit for you and your life. Keep doing it”, she says “until the effect of your words and actions on communities of color become something you think about before you say and do them, not after.” Keep showing up she says, “Until including black voices in your search for truth becomes as comfortable as the white voices you are use to. Until the spiritual life of the People of Color in your community is considered in every decision you and your congregation make.”

The first thing we can do is show up. The second thing we can do is name white supremacy and call it what it is. “Never dignify the white supremacy ideology by calling it alt-right,” says my friend and colleague Kim Crawford Harvey. Instead let us say neo Nazi, racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, ablest, anti-immigration, anti-Semitic, homophobic, transphobic, and sexist; All white supremacy expressions. Name them every time you witness them or experience them.

The third thing is allow yourself to be changed by the dissonance between our guiding principles and our action; that is, stay present to and learn from the disconnect that happens sometimes between our words of aspiration and our deeds that fall short. Become comfortable in the discomfort and invite the principle of love and self-love to be the driver of your work. Without this we will hurt each other and undermine the movement.

Three things, show up, see and name white supremacy, and love and learn in the dissonance. This is where we can start and continue the work. The question I leave you with is this: If you are committed to Black Liberation how do you and how do we as a congregation live that out?

The Sermon, Part 2 “Creating the Other America” by Steve Farough

It seems over the past few years it has become more challenging for us to say that racism and racial injustice are problems of a forgotten era. We have watched in horror as torch and gun-wielding white supremacists marched across Charlottesville, Virginia, leaving one dead and many more wounded. We have seen images of the heavily-armed Ferguson police department pointing military-grade weaponry at its own residents. Are they there to protect the citizens of Ferguson or are they an occupying army? We may wonder. We continue to see police shooting after police shooting of young black men and women that at times feel more like extra-judicial killings than legitimate law enforcement protocol. And we know the data well: the United States incarcerates more of its population than any other—the incarcerated are disproportionally people of color. This data becomes even more alarming when we realize that much of the spike in incarceration is for low-level drug crimes and that white Americans are as likely to sell and use drugs as brown people. Yet it is people of color who carry brunt of our criminal justice system.

When we look to leadership to change these injustices we are left with a president who rode into power on racial demagoguery and has demonstrated the utmost contempt for the legitimate grievances of people of color. His Attorney General is doing his best to revitalize the worst aspects of racialized mass incarceration.

Many of us are also aware of the flipside to systemic racism—the accumulative advantages of whiteness. Even today white people as a group have received better access to education, housing, employment, health care, and political voice because of the institutionalized nature of racial oppression; this disproportionate access allows for greater chances of upward mobility, personal security, and overall well being for many white Americans. If there is a pattern to all of these more recent racial injustices it points to the continuing ability of racism to become codified into custom, cultural practices, rules, and the law. In other words, racism continues to be systemic in nature even if there have also been some notable gains since the Civil Rights movement.

Knowing all of this is one of the reason why the SJMC worked with you all last year to raise our Black Lives Matter banner on the outside of the church—to say that we as a congregation are aware, that we want to stand on the side of racial justice, and that we want to be a racially inclusive and welcoming community. Being aware of all of these problems is important but for many of us we may find ourselves wondering what are the best ways to affect change. Sometimes systemic racism seems overwhelmingly powerful—it carries a longstanding legacy throughout American history and it has proven to be surprisingly adaptable. However, these problems where made by the collective actions of people and as a result can be changed by people. If history has taught us anything it is that even the most powerful systems of oppression collapse and sometimes they go rather quickly.

And with that sentiment, the SJMC would like to invite the congregation and other interested parties to the Confronting Systemic Racist Workshop series put on by facilitators from the Anti-Racist Collaborative or ARC. The course sessions take place at Harvard Unitarian Universalist Church’s Fellowship Building from 12 – 2:30 pm starting on September 24th, and will be held on 10/1, 10/15, 10/22. For more information, please visit the HUUC website and look down to the middle of the webpage. There you will find the link and sign up for the workshop! Members of the SJMC are more than happy to answer any questions you might have. Thank you.