Ask a simple question…
Get a non answer and a dismissive insult about my faith. That was my experience when asking a question yesterday at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference ( CBCFALC 19) during a session about the black church response to youth suicide and mental health. The discussion was an interesting blend of academic, theological and public service heft with a dash of celebrity. Moderated by Rev. Dr. Sherry D. Molock, the panel included distinguished scholars AMA President Patrice A. Harris, MD, Dr. Michael A. Lindsey of NYU and respected clergy including Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, Rev. DeForest Soaries and Michael Eric Dyson.
I was impressed that the discussion among them did not shy away from one of the larger sources of distress among black youth in black churches: sexuality. It was clear that the panel was willing to engage, but it was also clear that when they turned to LGBTQ issues there was no one speaking from the first-person experience of what it means to be LGBTQ, black and churched. This is what prompted my question. Too often, particularly in faith-oriented spaces, there is talk about people rather than inviting them speak for themselves.
The premise of my question was simple: what can be done to help black church leaders be more of a role model for people in black communities to share their experience of distress or marginalization anxiety…particularly among vulnerable LGBTQ youth? But I never received an answer. Instead, Michael Eric Dyson offered what felt like a pointed and public ridicule of my faith. He made a not entirely off base generalization that Unitarian Universalists are over intellectual and racist. But I got the sense of him doing this more to score some kind of points with the crowd rather than toward making any kind of worthwhile point.
Frankly, I don’t know who he was talking to although I’m certain it wasn’t me. I spend every day working within this problematic denomination; I know the challenges much better than he could ever summarize while trying to be clever. I’m invested every day in building systems and histories of resilience for people of color within Unitarian Universalism and I toil at cultivating authentic theological language that works beyond the racism. I’m also involved in several projects to answer to some of the historic origins of the racism as it relates to the Puritan settlers and displacement and genocide of Native People. But in the moment yesterday, my work and the work of other black and brown UUs didn’t matter. I suppose for Michael Eric Dyson, black and brown UUs are just an afterthought (if he thinks of us at all) to a whole lot of over educated white racists. I’m sure that he is very proud of his exhaustive work, as he should be, but Dyson’s celebrity critique from the outside of my faith will never equal the impact of my and other folks’ actual existence and tireless work in the center of the storm. We are the ones who live the daily defiance rewriting the narrative on what it means to be Unitarian Universalist.
Of course, there is the fact that insulting someone’s faith, no matter what you think about it is just rude. But truth be told, I don’t really take issue with his response or the personal affront to my work, training and experience (most people read me to be 20 years younger than my 54 years and he wouldn’t know my resume), nor do I take issue with the simplistic rejoinder offered by Rev. Molock about black UCC churches being open and affirming; for the record, I come from two generations of UCC ministers and I am close associates with several people leading the open and affirming work including Bishop Yvette Flunder who leads the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries and City of Refuge in Oakland, CA.
What I take issue with is that as he reminded everyone about UU racism, Dyson also said that he would rather choose to be in a black space and have to hold his tongue on certain things (my paraphrase) than deal with the racism of being in a white church space. The implication here being that I could somehow make the same choice to be quiet about being gay and serve a black church if I chose to, or that I was some kind of black impostor. This is the same offensive language that was used by people who encouraged me to stay in the closet when I was a teenager. It is literally the same harm that people on the panel were saying needs to end. It is the same response that drives some young people to suicide. This entirely unhelpful response to self-examination is exactly what prompted my question. I would have left his church.
I will be the first person to point out Unitarian Universalisms shortcomings. Doing so is a regular part of my preaching and my ongoing personal re-affirmation of what it means to serve the faith community I have chosen. But my question was not about restating the obvious. My question and my choice to publicly name myself as ordained clergy and as an openly as a gay man in that explicitly black church oriented space was to let the moderators and the entire room know that one of “them” was literally in the room even if we were not invited to have a voice at the table.
The black church, and by that I mean the clergy and those who support the systems of the church around black community, have a long way to go. This is true of Black UUs as well. We have a long way to go to resolve and address the wide variety of issues that add up to our collective and shared racial trauma. Relentless racism that manifests as income inequality, health disparities, addiction, poor school outcomes and more. But we also have to address the trauma we inflict on ourselves; our mental health challenges are indicative of this. Specifically, black sexuality and gender are places where we have self-sustained incredible damage through the objectification, abuse and subjugation of women, the perpetuation of impenetrable and silent manhood, the narrative that our sexual and gender presentation is a representation of the entire race of African peoples and of course by demonizing those who live and identify as LGBTQ. The church has historically leveraged scripture as a tool to support a concept of a black sexuality that feels at times impossible to achieve, let alone maintain.
It is absolutely understandable that we have traditions that promote unity and uniformity. Our churches and beautiful traditions of testimony, storytelling, confession and prayer were born out of the rupture of our biological families by white racialized violence (physical, economic, etc.). But why is the celebration of black Christian faith unwilling to look at itself in the mirror and ask if the same tools that have sustained our “family” through a variety of oppressions have also evolved into weapons that are pushing young people away and limiting the willingness of people of all kinds to seek support from the church before doing self-harm?
I may not serve a denomination that is part of the black church tradition, but I believe passionately in the power of black churches and I feel a deep personal connection to them. I am proud that I was Baptized in the historic Siloam Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn by Rev. Milton Galamison. I am equally proud that my grandfather Rev. Jacob A. Dyer proudly served as the minister of St. Lukes Church in Queens through some of the worst parts of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, I draw great strength and community from my colleagues who serve black denominations. I believe in the message of love and the celebration of the divine. I believe in black people and black community. Yesterday, I drew strength from the large number of people who approached me after the session to thank me for my question and to echo my sentiment. I believe we would all benefit if more black church leaders were willing to actually answer questions like the one I posed instead of looking for an opportunity to shine at someone else’s expense. That dismissive attitude is what sent me out the door of my parent’s church four decades ago and it is what will continue to keep young people away today if that bad behavior continues.
Oh, and you can be sure, I’m going to keep on showing up and asking the same questions no matter how uncomfortable they may be. All I ask is that you do me the courtesy of answering the question before casting any judgement on me or my faith.