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If you told me ten weeks ago that I’d be sitting in circle with black Christians, singing a gospel song about interconnectedness, I would have told you that you were crazy!

White male humanist 

Thank you for telling something I didn’t want to hear. You’re helping me return to the real intentions of my heart.

White, female Jewish elder

Simply because black people know oppression does not mean we have nothing to learn about how we’ve been shaped by racism.

Black female lay leader

By Mark A. Hicks, Ed.D.

General Editor, Curriculum Writer for Beloved Conversations: Meditations on Race and Ethnicity

December 2017, Chicago

Writing stories about how racial truths shape our lives can be risky business. The writer has an opportunity to empower those lurking in the destabilizing shadows of racism to step into the light, daring to name truths that can freeze a person into perpetual states of fear, anger, shame. At the same time, daring to go public with a personal truth nudges the writer toward self-healing. Together, the act of reading and writing stories of hardship creates new realities, new ways to signal to self and Other that the world they know can be otherwise.

I wrote Beloved Conversations: Meditations on Race and Ethnicity for reasons similar to the writer who decides to tell a risky truth. My own experiences as a middle-class African American was one of paradoxes associated with hiding from my own truth and power. My family expected me to assimilate while pushing social boundaries, to be part of DuBois’s Talented Tenth, but maintain a sense of commonness and connections to our Black community.

Yet, the more I engaged across cultural lines in school, church, and the workplace, the more unsatisfying that way of life became. The socializing impulses of my youth and young adult years crystalized into conflict-avoidant ways of being, trying to please everyone, often suffering alone in isolation and confusion. When white teachers and classmates activated racist stereotypes, I remained quiet, kept my head down, relishing in that adolescent righteousness: “I’ll prove my brilliance to you one day.”

Thank goodness I matured, but my racial life got worse. The institutionalized system of racism beat me down. But, over time, I came to realize that my experience of double-consciousness was not unique, that my story was relevant, and even more important, that I was not to blame for the sense of incompleteness and inadequacy that seemed to be an ever-present companion. Paraphrasing the words from novelist Toni Morrison’s Beloved: I found companions who became friends of my mind, my heart, and my sense living into a positive future.

As I moved deeper into the religious and cultural experience of Unitarian Universalism, I discovered I shared a common thread among friends and colleagues. Like me, people were compelled to name and critique how race misshaped their sense of wholeness, of justice. Folks could earn top grades doing the work of denouncing racist language, behaviors, and practices. But while quick to march or turn out a business meeting or publicly shame a wrongdoer, there was a haunting shrillness that was not softened by a spiritual core, the sense of compassion and empathy that nurtures the soul after a heart has been broken.

I began to see this everywhere. People of color—the targets of racism—often expected that spouting logical, confessional, and passionate antiracist language would translate into new practices and ways of being. Instead, exhaustion set in, what the sociologist of education Michael Smith calls, “racial battle fatigue,” where souls are murdered by a thousand cuts. People of color leave our religious community disappointed, spiritually drained, and often filled with sarcasm—even scorn—for our community. Whites, likewise disappointed by a lack of progress, sometimes leave, but, more than not, they find solace in the cultural systems of their congregation. At the very least, they might say, the system of whiteness still speaks to major needs of their lives (friendships, liturgy, music, a sense of community). As one white congregant said, exasperated by a minister of color she thought was a bad match for the congregation: “At least I still have [white minister’s name], who understands me.”

It is this admixture of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that calls the transformative power of faith formation into action. Beloved Conversations: Meditations on Race and Ethnicity is a teaching and learning curriculum that holds both the tensions and the joys of an intentional multicultural* community. The curriculum assumes that every conversation with another human being is a cross-cultural conversation, even if your conversation partner is from the same cultural group. As such, it explores the social constructs of race and ethnicity as a spiritual exercise, allowing people to give shape to their own story while learning how to honor the experience of others. It promotes resilience, challenging everyone to hear naked truths and not run away when the truth is difficult to hear. Nested inside communities of faith, Beloved Conversations creates the first step—a learning laboratory—for how to live healthily in a multiracial, multicultural, and often theologically diverse community.

The curriculum differs greatly from traditional diversity workshops that suggest it is possible to “train” participants to respond to cultural differences as a matter of dos and don’ts. Matters related to the human condition are never easy to name or fully understand. There is no prescription, no magical solution that “fixes” unhealthy dispositions or personalities. That is why the curriculum invites participants into a “learning community” so they have a chance to unpack their assumptions, gently, while embedded in the robust context of cross-cultural relationships. Such a format allows for “unlearning” (Wink, 2011) patterns of thought, feelings, and emotions that contribute to walls of division. Best of all, it’s all done with an eye toward the spiritual and communal commitments we hold as people of faith.

The curriculum is deeply rooted in the theoretical framework of “transformative teaching and learning” (see the writing of Jack Mezorow in Cranton, 2006), which asks learners to reflect on what really matters in their lives and provides culturally relevant learning strategies for how to achieve those aims. The curriculum uses a range of evocative teaching tools to signal a fresh approach to exploring human diversity as psycho-spiritual work. It opens with a one-and-a-half-day learning laboratory in the form of a retreat (usually a Friday evening and Saturday). The retreat explicitly models the pedagogy and spirit of the curriculum. After a learning community is formed, eight two-hour seminars are designed as follow-up sessions to help participants locate their individual and group assumptions about race and ethnicity in their lives. At the same time, learners are constantly asked to think about how social systems intersect with their personal journey.

The curriculum is experiential through and through, using music, visual arts, digital media, theater, film, and the best practices of small-group ministry to make its point. The retreat is led by an authorized staff member from the Fahs Collaborative who has deep experience in faith-based, social justice education. The eight sessions that follow the retreat are facilitated by two facilitators chosen by and from within the sponsoring congregation(s).

Beloved Conversations alone is not the magic solution to a congregation’s or community’s work on racial/cultural/theological diversity. It should be conceptualized as one among many tools that help faith communities reach their goal of living into the dream of our multicultural world, even if the community is “all white.” Sociologists of religion (see Emerson, 2009) widely confirm that only 4 percent of congregations in the United States are multiracial, in large part because congregations lack effective teaching and learning strategies that encourage every cultural group within the congregation to grow and develop cross-cultural competencies. Thus Beloved Conversations serves as more than a curriculum to help members of a congregation better relate one to the other; it also helps members re-tune their spiritual antennae to the needs of the world already swirling around them.

The Fahs Collaborative realizes that change does not happen without thoughtful planning, spiritual discernment, and a highly relational commitment to the process of “doing the work for as long as it takes.” As such, the Collaborative provides professional staff support to help the congregation assess its readiness to engage. That process is followed up with individual and group coaching via digital formats (video conference, phone calls, and so forth).

Beloved Conversations was created in 2013. What have we learned so far? Reports from members in the network are both encouraging while challenging us to dig deeper. Congregational leaders report that people are:

  • more courageous in engaging in cross-cultural dialogue;
  • more comfortable in taking risks to communicate deeply held assumptions about race and ethnicity; better equipped to sit with cultural differences;
  • more adaptable in dealing with different standards of worship, music, education;
  • more fluid when translating personal communication styles and theological commitments to other preferences and traditions;
  • better able to link personal power to systematic oppressions;
  • more resilient when confronting the status quo;
  • more curious about personal, narrowly held assumptions;
  • better able to set aside issues of perfectionism and judgment when encountering different standards.

In addition, people of color and folks who are often discouraged by the mono-cultural framework of mostly white congregations are finding ways to attend to their own faith formation, meaning, ways to name and heal around their experiences as targets of oppression both within the religious community and in society at large.

So it is that Beloved Conversations is making a significant difference in the lives of many of its participants. As a teaching and learning organization, we are curious to know more about how its model impacts individuals and their congregations. As a professor of religious education and its principal designer, I am taking those questions seriously and devoting time for scholarly exploration. We welcome your interest and participation in this cutting-edge work.  

*Multicultural, used here, refers to social constructions of identity that can be the source of inspiration and pride or, at the same time, the source of oppression. Examples include race, ethnicity, religious tradition, gender/gender identification, sexuality, nationality, economic resources, etc.  

References

Cranton, Patricia. 2006. Understanding and promoting transformative learning: A guide for educators of adults. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Emerson, Michael. 2008. People of the dream: Multi-racial congregations in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wink, Joan, 2011. Critical pedagogy:  Notes from the real world. 4th ed. New York, NY: Pearson.

Note: this essay is reprinted from Unitarian Universalists of Color: Stories of Struggle, Courage, Love and Faith, edited by Yuri Yamamoto, Chandra Snell, and Tim Hanami.  Copyright © UU of Color Story Project. Available from Lulu.com.