Right now our fellowship is joining Unitarian Universalist congregations all over the country in discussing the book Centering: Navigating Race, Authenticity, and Power in Ministry. The book presents the first-hand experiences of UU ministers and religious professionals of color, and is an eye-opening account of how race is made simultaneously both visible and invisible in majority-white faith communities.
I cant’ say it enough… read this book!
At the heart of our discussions of the book is the concept of centering. Think of the usual set-up of our Sunday morning services. All seats face a raised platform, with a prominent large wooden pulpit right in the center. On most Sundays, behind that pulpit stands.. me. The minister, clearly identified by the black robe and colorful stole, which are the traditional vestments of ordained clergy in our tradition. The pulpit and minister are the center because they are clearly the object of focus, but there’s more to it than that. They are centered as the authority.
This is similar to what “centering” means in the context of the book Centering. When someone comes to us with their precious story, and it is a story we don’t share, such as if we are white and they are of color, they are transgender and we are cisgender, they are a woman and we are a man, etc., can we truly center them and their experience? Can we approach this sharing so that they become the authority in our encounter?
In our current national climate, it is a true spiritual practice to decenter ourselves and center others. As I shared in the sermon this past Sunday, here are four keys to centering others as a spiritual practice. These are taken from the study guide for Centering, from guidelines by the Rev. Josh Pawelek.
#1 – Keep their experience in the center, not yours
It’s human to try to connect someone else’s experience to our own as a way to create understanding; however, if a person of color is sharing their difficult truth, and I as a white person respond with, “I know exactly what you mean. I grew up poor” or something similar, what just happened? I’ve removed them as the center and replaced myself.
If someone from a vulnerable community is presenting their experience to you, honor their inherent dignity by letting them be the center. Listen. Ask appropriate questions, but don’t make the conversation about you.
#2 – Avoid the impulse to fix the problem
Again, it’s natural to want to help by offering solutions, but if I jump in with all the answers, what happened? I’ve removed them as the center and replaced myself.
Don’t wash over their experience with your bright ideas. The time comes, of course, to act, but let’s begin by listening. Actually listening. And when the time comes to act, follow their lead, not your own.
#3- Resist the temptation to get hung up on guilt and shame
If you’re coming from a place of privilege, and you are truly listening and centering others, then at some point you’ll get uncomfortable. Feelings of guilt and shame are natural and understandable. That’s human.
But if I bring those feeing up in the conversation, either to get their forgiveness or out of defensiveness (“Not all men are like that!”), then what just happened? Again, I’ve removed them as the center and replaced myself.
The point of centering is not to feel bad. Guilt and shame can actually be a trap, a way to shift focus away from them and toward myself. Fight that temptation. Remember: we only have pearls because oysters stay uncomfortable for long stretches of time.
And #4- Be humble
Every human being you encounter knows something about the human experience that you don’t, because their life is different from yours. The only way to learn is to listen, and that starts with admitting we don’t know everything.
As a fellowship, it means acknowledging that while we strive to be embracing of human diversity we fall short. No institution is perfect; but if we want to improve we have to be humble enough to admit our faults and be humble enough to let ourselves be called out.
It is true that Unitarian Universalism is a majority-white faith community. That’s a simple demographic fact. But we are not “a white tradition,” because there have always been and continue to be UUs who are Black, Latinx, Asian-American, Middle Eastern, multiracial, and more. Their experiences are UU experiences. When we center UU perspectives other than the majority-white perspective, we open ourselves up to be transformed, the same as when we center anyone, UU or not, who entrusts us with their sacred story.
Let ours be a fellowship calling people out from the margins, honoring their inherent worth and dignity by letting them, in our presence, be firm and strong in the center.