orking on racism issues in the association and in his own heart has been "a very humbling experience," says UUA President the Rev. John A. Buehrens. Buehrens was interviewed as part of the World's exploration
of the Journey toward Wholeness antiracism initiative. We started with the question of how far he thinks the UUA has come on the Journey toward Wholeness.
There were a number of false starts. It took a while to figure out that what
is needed is a spiritual transformation of a predominantly white, middle-class
religious movement to become aware of its own enmeshment in cultural and
The resolution passed at General Assembly in 1992 is a plea for a more
racially inclusive movement. In other words, let's have more people of
color in the UUA. There was a problem with that, though. White liberals
wanted more people of color around to reduce their guilt feelings, using
people of color as trophies and tokens. When people ask me how we can find
more people of color, I tell them, "Stop trying; don't go fishing for people
Another basic course correction has been learning that racism hurts
all people of color. This thing started out as basically a black-white
issue. But the rise of Latino/a voices; the presence and the transformation
work of someone like [UUA staffer] Robette Dias, who's a Native American;
the growing number of persons of color of Asian background—all of this
has had to come out on the screen.
How did the change in thinking get started?
A big task force met in St. Louis in 1993 and had to select a methodology
for trying to advance this diversity agenda [called for in the 1992 resolution].
And when they realized it couldn't be about diversity without dealing with
racism, they had to pick consultants who would help us become aware of
our own enmeshment in cultural racism. They turned to the Crossroads Ministries.
The Crossroads model is not perfect for us, so there's been a big adaptation
of that. The approach that Crossroads helped us find recognizes that there
are power dynamics involved in cultural and institutional racism, but it
recognizes that change comes about in people.
You have little light bulbs going off in people's heads in the middle
of our antiracism training where they realize, "Oh my God, if I'm not part
of the solution, I'm part of the problem. If I don't actively attempt to
do something about further distributing opportunity and power to people
who historically have been excluded, and where the culture reinforces patterns
of exclusion, I'm just helping to perpetuate racist patterns." And those
patterns also manifest themselves in our congregations and in our association
as a whole.
How big a struggle is it to grapple with antiracism?
I'm constantly realizing, "Oh, that's another dimension of this that I
never quite got right." It's very humbling working on this stuff. Some
people believe that there are those who get it and those who don't. I don't
There are going to be differences of opinion all along the way, and
there are going to be mistakes, where insensitive things are done or people
run. People get into the notion that, "I thought I could expect that there
wouldn't be any racist responses." Well, good luck. The day that happens,
we will have entered nirvana.
But I do think we have settled on a common, pragmatic methodology that's
not a matter of merely working on prejudiced individuals and not a full-blown
political, ideological stance, either, or a creed. We're being honest about
The history of this movement around race is not as noble as people like
to portray it. There have been moments of real commitment of predominantly
white Unitarians and Universalists to undoing racially based oppression.
But even during the abolitionist era, the bulk of Unitarians were profoundly
conservative and resisted abolitionism, even to the point of boycotting
William Ellery Channing's preaching to the degree that he became depressed
and ill and retired early from the ministry. His own really quite
modest abolitionist notions wouldn't penetrate the heads of his parishioners,
who were all tied up with their economic interests in the cotton trade,
What do you view as the UU accomplishments?
Well over 500 leaders of the movement have now experienced the antiracism
analysis training. The whole model here has been one of transforming the
awareness of the gatekeepers, those who hold the power.
We have now gotten to the point where we have 45 persons of color in
ministerial fellowship. Most of our ministers don't even know that. We
don't regard this as adequate, so we're now trying to add some active
recruitment efforts. I think more ministers of color have been willing to take a risk
on us because of the Journey toward Wholeness initiative, because they
see, "Oh, the predominantly white leadership of this movement actually
does grasp that racism is a problem, and they're willing to talk with me
as a human being and not a racial abstraction."
Many critics of the Journey toward Wholeness initiative have been ministers.
They know it will be hard. And they know that right at the core of this
methodology what is at stake is giving away power.
Oh, absolutely. And let me say, in the defense of people in our ministry,
laypeople have no idea how scary and insecure the life of most ministers
is, at a very deep spiritual level and at an economic level. Job security
in our movement is lousy, as it is in most congregationally based denominations.
So I'm not surprised when they put up resistance. They're very good at
intellectual defense systems.
What tend to be their objections?
Three things. Congregational polity--"Don't tell me what to do; I'll decide when
and what." Fine. We're never going to be able to tell congregations when
and just how to work on this stuff. But let's admit it: Is this initiative
coming from the congregations? No. If we waited for it to come from the
congregations, it would never happen. The association has a moral obligation
to lead in order to help the whole of Unitarian Universalism adapt to a
future that is necessarily going to be more multiracial and multicultural.
We are going to persistently suggest that unless you learn to adapt to
the exigencies of a more multiracial and multicultural world, your relevance
is in danger.
Another area of resistance is, "Gee, this might make me feel guilty
or my people feel guilty." That is not the intent, and that is not what
happens, but it's guaranteed that when you start working on this, people
will experience some conflict, differences of perspectives. You start talking
across racial lines, people don't see things the same way. It becomes a
real spiritual risk.
The third area of resistance is an attempt to substitute an educational
model: "Let's read books and discuss them and debate the world out there
and whether racism isn't less of a problem now than it used to be."
I think I'm hearing you suggest that this journey is going to take generations.
Are we doing process here or are we doing real change?
We're doing spiritual and social transformation. We're trying to do a social
transformation of our own religious community, so that it begins to look
more like the beloved community. The UUA is a service organization created
by and for the congregations. Our job, on behalf of the whole family of
congregations, is to make sure that not only does this religious movement
not vanish from the face of the earth but that it adapts successfully to
the new moral, cultural, and social demands of the age. That means we're
always in the uncomfortable position of putting challenges in front of
congregations, as well as services.