Building Brave Spaces

by Melinda Einander, Director of Family Ministries

This past weekend I attended the annual professional gathering of UU religious educators. Each fall, members of the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) gather together with colleagues to expand our understanding of faith formation, to worship together, and to support one another in our work. The theme for this year’s conference was “Building Brave Spaces.” The goal was to explore “how to build brave spaces in our lives and in our congregations — spaces in which we can engage ever more deeply and joyfully with one another, spaces for peacemaking within, among and between, toward the empowerment of all.”

As the program unfolded and we began to engage with the topic, it became clear that the learning experiences were inflicting harm on the participants of color. The conference organizers were not prepared for the ways in which many of my colleagues of color (as well as people experiencing other forms of oppression) responded to some of the exercises. The learning exercises required a great deal of emotional vulnerability, they assumed participants came from a position of privilege, and did not acknowledge the role an imbalance of power can play in conflict resolution.

After a period of supreme discomfort for some, several brave participants spoke up to interrupt the planned program. This lead to a period of extreme discomfort for all, as the conference planners and participants wrestled with the idea that the program was inflicting emotional harm on beloved colleagues.

What followed was painful, challenging, and – ultimately — a transformative learning experience for all present. Conference organizers met with a group of those who had expressed hurt and frustration, and together reworked the plan for the weekend. The schedule was changed, with some elements being retained, some discarded, and others added. Two of our leaders, one white and the other a person of color, modeled the process of restorative justice, holding a conversation before all assembled, demonstrating this as a powerful learning tool. The president of our professional organization made a public apology to those who had been hurt. Afterwards, all participants met in learning circles, to debrief what had happened and to allow us to reflect with one another on what we had learned from these events.

I share this story, because as our congregation engages in the hard work of better understanding oppression and working for social justice, it is important to recognize how easily well-meaning progressive white people can unintentionally inflict harm on people of color, even while we voice our values of inclusion and acceptance for all. It is important that we too create a brave space in which we can learn and grow together.

Our larger culture is one of white supremacy. It assumes whiteness and the values of white culture to be the norm. It is the air we breathe, and the water we swim in. Within this context it can be nearly impossible to be aware of all the ways our culture inflicts harm on people of color, and how often people of color do the emotional work of allowing white people to remain comfortable.

We have many opportunities this year to engage together in creating brave space. Saltwater members recently engaged in the “Beyond Categorical Thinking” workshop to help us examine our own prejudices and assumptions about the characteristics we imagine in a future minister, or heard the sermon given by Rev. Keith Kron the next day. Later this year, Saltwater will partner will Sound Alliance to offer a series of talks and workshops inviting us to deepen our understanding of racism. Our children and youth are exploring issues of race and other forms of oppression in their classes this year, as part of their curriculum on creating justice. As the culmination of their study of local hunger, our young people will present a worship service on November 19, inviting us all to engage in recognizing how food insecurity affects all of us, and how we all have a role to play in ensuring no one in our community suffers from lack of food. This study was a concrete way for our young people to explore how oppression affects us all, as we are linked together in our interdependent relationships within a community.

Our congregation’s engagement in anti-oppression work is not comfortable, will not be comfortable, and cannot be comfortable. When faced with a situation that makes us uncomfortable, I encourage us to choose curiosity — to ask questions, to seek to learn more, to avoid becoming defensive and entrenched in our own perspectives. As we learn and grow together we must ensure that we not only allow our views to change, but also for our behavior to change. We must examine the ways in which our actions support the culture of white supremacy and oppression of other marginalized groups.

It’s easy to say we don’t want anyone in our community to go hungry; it is much harder to recognize how food insecurity affects people we know–members of our congregation or us ourselves (now, or in our past, or in the future)–and how ignoring the problem of hunger ultimately affects the entire community. It’s easy to say we don’t support white supremacy; it is much harder to examine the ways our congregational culture supports a culture of white supremacy, and to change what needs to be changed. And so on. We as Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people; our actions too must affirm and promote that inherent worth.

There are times when each of us needs comfort, times that each of us needs to be challenged, and times that each of us needs space to process in order to learn and grow. To truly become a brave space for growth and learning, our congregations must offer all three; and to provide these simultaneously to the people in need of each. As we process through our own learning, we must make space for others who are in a different stage of the learning, whose needs may be different form our own. This is faith development in action. It is messy, it takes a lot out of us, and it forces us to grow — and it is what we are called to do.

Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, president of the UUA, tells us, “This is no time for a casual faith.” Indeed, this is the time to put our faith into action, and to rely on our faith to sustain us through the challenges of this work.

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