Obstacles in Racial Justice Organizing

Although transformative racial justice work has been a focus at the First Universalist, in the Spring of 2016, many congregants reflected on the current obstacles they faced in getting congregants to engage more actively in these causes. 

Fear of involvement in Black Lives Matter:

In describing the challenges of getting congregants involved in Black Lives Matter actions, Denise said, “It’s been really hard to get a lot of people from this church. I get a maximum of ten…at an action. There’s a real fear. We’re blocking traffic. People are screaming at you. That takes some real investment and commitment. I thought more people would do this because we’d be a group of people of faith together. I keep expecting it. I’m finally learning not to.” 1

Guilt and shame associated with race:

Polly agreed that despite the congregation’s ongoing commitment to racial justice work over the years, between 2013 and 2016, the church still receives pushback from some of its congregants, which she believes stems from guilt. She has heard the sentiment: “I come to church to feel good, to have my soul restored. I don’t come here to feel guilty.” Polly suggested that “when people go to [a place of] guilt,” with respect to various political issues, “they aren’t motivated. They get paralyzed.”2

Lack of racial awareness:

Lyn Rabinovich, a congregant who is deeply involved with racial justice, said, “Probably everyone here is a very progressive white person. They’re not prejudiced. They are educated and don't feel like they have biases and kind of think all that work was done in the civil rights movement and it’s over now. The biggest challenge I think is working with other white people to try to reeducate."3 Michael Dotson, former member of the Racial Justice Leadership team, added that people at the church “just don’t get how complicated race really is.” 4

Because many congregants at the First Universalist, according to congregant Denise Konen have had a “fairly average middle class life,” they “can’t see what it’s been like for people of color. Some of them can’t see, and some of them aren’t willing to  try to see. You can’t see that there’s as much racism as there is if you don’t look.”5

 White people learning to step back:

Lyn Rabinovich expressed the discomfort that many white people share in acknowledging that they need to let others take on leadership. She said, “One thing about Black Lives Matter is that they have taught us, and we know this-- white people like to be in charge. So if we’re going to do an event with them, the training tells us that at the pre-event is the time to ask questions. When the event is on, don’t just say, ‘Oh I think it would be good to something over there.’ Once you decide to be with an event, you look to the leaders. If you disagree with something you can debrief after. But before and after you’re in the hands of the leaders.” 6

Pushback to Racial Justice Efforts:

Polly recalled that “When we first put a Black Lives Matter banner outside the church, we had a few people say ‘don’t all lives matter?’ And a racial-justice minded volunteer would step out and have a good conversation with those people and say, ‘Yes, of course all lives matter, but if our most marginalized citizens don’t appear to matter and experience greatly disproportionate rates of violence, incarceration, joblessness—we can’t move forward as a community.’

Other pushback has emerged when people have asked, ‘Why is racial justice the cause of the church? We have other causes that are getting short shrift.’ There were people concerned that their favorite causes wouldn’t be one that the church would embrace going forward. We were trying to be transformational that every aspect had RJ lense applied to it. That threatened folks whose favorite causes didn’t meet that. Polly said that the Environmental Justice group was one group that held those sentiments. Polly noted that even though environmental justice has a “lot of racial issues tied in, in a lot of ways, that movement has been led by white people.”7

Lack of Diversity in the Congregation:

Unitarian Universalism, on the whole, is a white-dominated faith, and the same holds true at the First Universalist. When the church embarked on its racial justice journey, Jen Crow said that many congregants thought the “point of the work was to become a more diverse congregation.” She said, “I’m hopeful that the folks who are people of color will feel more comfortable and feel that they are getting their spiritual needs met in a way that they hadn't before. And if other people of color come, I hope they will  feel welcome here. But the goal is not to attract people of color.”8

Racial Justice Work and Emotional Pain:

Denise Konen said that another reason for people’s avoidance from racial justice work is that “It’s so painful. It breaks your heart open over and over. And you have to do something about it. You have to pray more, you have to do more spiritual practice and ask ministers for help. You’re trying to crack your heart open. Most people don’t want to do that. I don’t know why I do it! I don’t know why some of us do. You’re exposing yourself to pain over and over again.”9

Everyone is at a different place in their racial justice journey:

Racial Justice Leadership Team member Polly Talen explained, “Every individual is on a journey somewhere and some people are more resistant to the journey and some are running headlong. One important of this work is getting people to wake up and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I was miseducated. I can’t say I did my civil rights stint.’

We need to light a fire to provide information to people at the moment they’re ready so that everyone can work individually and collectively. Racial justice trainings are about waking up and catching up. It’s a great start.”10

  1. Denise Konen, interview by Natalie Jacobson, March 23, 2016.

  1. Polly Talen, interview by Natalie Jacobson, March 23, 2016.

  1. Lyn Rabinovitch, Interview with Natalie Jacobson, April 17, 2016.

  1. Michael Dotson, Interview with Natalie Jacobson, May 8, 2016.

  1. Denise Konen, interview by Natalie Jacobson, March 23, 2016.

  1. Lyn Rabinovitch, Interview with Natalie Jacobson, April 17, 2016.

  1. Polly Talen, interview by Natalie Jacobson, March 23, 2016.

  1. Jen Crow, interview by Natalie Jacobson, March 15, 2016.

  1. Denise Konen, interview by Natalie Jacobson, March 23, 2016.

  1. Polly Talen, interview by Natalie Jacobson, March 23, 2016.