What We Inherit: White Supremacy

For several years people have mentioned how much I look like my mother. I never thought I looked like my mother. She had brown eyes, I have blue. I have freckles, she had none. I certainly hear my mother’s voice in my own … in the phrases I use, my tendency to mumble incomplete thoughts, and an occasional exclamation to the person driving (my husband), “You don’t want to go that way!” (An inside family joke – a story for another time.) But, since I got my hair cut short a couple of months ago, every time I look in the mirror, there’s my mother. Can’t get away from what we inherit in looks, and difficult to run from the mannerisms, phrases, and other characteristics we are either born with or pick up from those who birthed us and/or raised us.

We inherit many things that are invisible to us, until and unless we intentionally seek to see the invisible. White supremacy is like this. Everyone of us living in the United States of America inherited the systems of white supremacy that are in the DNA of our founding. Whether one is actually a White Supremacist, actively engaged in promoting the idea that people who believe they are white (of western European descent) are better than people of other ethnicities, or one is actively working to build an equitable, just, multicultural country, we are swimming and functioning in the waters of white supremacy.

I’m currently reading “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg. For anyone still living under the illusion that the U.S. was intended as a class-free society, that illusion will quickly melt away. America offered an opportunity for England to rid itself of the poor, the criminal, the homeless, and the “unworthy.” Our founders were not saints who saw all humans as equal. Most of those who protested slavery did so because of the belief that having a slave system made white people lazy, not because it was wrong to enslave people, or because they saw people who were not white as equals. And this is what we in the United States have all inherited: a system that was based on the premise that some people are better than others, some white people (descendants of wealthy, educated Englishmen) are better than other white people, and all white people are better than people who are not white.

Just like the face I see in the mirror will always remind me of my mother, it will also reminds me of the system of white supremacy in which I swim. This is important for all white folks to see … and especially liberal white folks. We can often fall in to the trap of thinking that because we envision an equitable society where we see no race, or because we aren’t overt racists, that we aren’t part of the system of white supremacy. This is how we become complicit and perpetuating systems of white supremacy. I recommend this spiritual practice for people who pass as white: In order to increase your awareness, each day wake up and ask, “How will my life be easier today because I am white?” Then, at the end of the day reflect on all the encounters in the day in which you were aware that you are white, and the advantages that provided. Awareness is just the beginning. The next step is to challenge yourself to step away from those advantages, decline the offer (or don’t apply in the first place), hand the microphone to a person of color, listen more than talking, actively challenge your white privilege.

A Change of Plans

Sabbatical time for ministers is unique to each minister. We each have to follow our hearts and souls toward what is calling us forward in this time of rest, renewal, and reflection. Recently I listened to a guided meditation containing affirmations “to help you switch on the happiness button in your brain and have a magical day.” One of the affirmations is “I make plans that are flexible and open to the surprises life has in store for me.”

I made plans to backpack on the Appalachian Trail for 30 days … really serious plans! There are countless details that have to be considered for food, shelter, clothing, and so forth. I embarked on my journey on Easter Sunday, starting with an ascent of over 3,000 feet in elevation change over very challenging terrain. Over the next four days I hiked more difficult ascents, navigated steep descents, walked through pouring rain, and found my way through dense fog. I saw great beauty, the devastating effects of humanity where whole forests and mountaintops were burned to the ground, and found hope in the new life emerging in those spaces.

I felt strong, capable, and agile. And, a knee injury I sustained last year kept nagging me all along the way. After four days, four nights, and 30 miles, I came to the realization that if I continued to hike for 26 more days, this could be my last hike. I’m young(ish)! I want to hike for 20 or 30 more years! So, I said, “Yes!” to a future of hiking and came off the trail. I am making a commitment to myself to go on day hikes and overnight hikes several times a year so I can regularly connect with the earth and keep my body strong.

Spiritually, this hike was extraordinary. I can’t wait to share some of the stories with you when I return. I encountered over 270 people hiking north as I hiked south from the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, NC. I had deep conversations with several people, and with each person I encountered, however briefly, I felt the divine spark of connection. I walked with a bigger smile, a lighter step, and a song on my heart after each encounter. It was a great joy to have this experience. I am full of gratitude.

On another note, there is much happening in our UU faith in the past couple of months. Emotions are high as deep wounds from many decades are being exposed, wounds that lay hidden or ignored for too long. I expect many of you are tuned in, and perhaps wondering where we are going. I have a deep and abiding faith in Unitarian Universalism and I am excited for our future … we are finding a new way towards being the multicultural, multigenerational, spiritually pluralist faith many of us dream about. I hold you all in my heart with compassion as we navigate the journeys of our faith, with all the ascents, descents, sunshine, downpours, and fog.

The Standing Ones

I love being in the company of trees, “the Standing Ones,” and I seek out walkways and trails with an abundance of trees. I’m careful as I make my way on trails not to step on the trees’ toes … avoiding their roots that cross the paths. I also avoid ants, beetles, and other living creatures as I step lightly on our earth.

Recently I walked a section of the Appalachian Trail in the Nantahala National Forest. For much of this walk I was surrounded by the remains of trees of many kinds, rhododendrons, mountain laurel and other forest foliage destroyed by what I’ve dubbed “the election day fires” from last November. In the week following the election I was on retreats in and near the Nantahala National Forest as fires, caused by arsons, burned throughout the area. The smoke was visible all the way to downtown Atlanta, and in the mountains it was at times overwhelming. Much was lost in those fires.

                                                          Wayah Bald

I don’t know how the trees can save us, or how we can save the trees, but I know that our mutual survival depends in large part on human action. As I walked through the burned out forest I saw the signs of new life emerging. I am reminded that the earth is profoundly resilient; I hope humanity is as well.

Hello Trees
By Jan Taddeo
Hello trees.
Can you save us?
Can we save you?
Our shared faith is dependent on these hands of humankind,
in the blood that pumps through our hearts,
in the marrow of our bones.
You hold the great wisdom of the earth in the roots that connect you with one another and the earth,
in your strong sturdy trunks that stand strong through the storms of human endeavors,
in every branch that reaches high into the sky
and in every leaf and needle that adorn your gorgeous bodies.
Can we save you?
Can you save us?
Hello trees.

Hiking Haiku-April 23

As I hiked along the Appalachian Trail (and in the middle of the night), I reflected on many things. Occasionally a poem emerged….

First mile behind me
my breathing is all I hear
Stop. Alone. Silence.

Seeing the forest
healthy greening full of life
including burnt trees.

One, two, three, four, five,
six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Breathe.
Practice makes progress.

Disciple follows
Jesus. What does that mean? I
should have asked him.

Legs to carry me
courageous heart to lead me
where I’m called to be.

Watching night arrive
gently embracing the fog
rain pours until morn.

One still smells the burn.
Devastation all around.
Still, Phoenix will rise.

Sway under the stars.
Tiny me in the vastness.
My journey complete.

Hiking Haiku: April 15

I’m about to go walkabout for a month on the Appalachian Trail. I will be mostly off the grid during this time, but I will post here as I’m able. I’m thinking Haiku would be appropriate, at least at this stage of my internal process as I’ve been preparing for this sojourn. A few words can speak volumes.

Fifteen years a dream
or has it been forty-three.
Now it is dream time.
This Gadding About
exploring inside and out
is not for wimp souls.
Why trail name True Blue?
Loyalty to Mother Earth,
family, friends, faith.
Ounces, pounds, fractions…
Home on my back begs questions:
Needs, wants, comforts, fears.

I’ll Bring You Hope…

This past week I attended a memorial service for a friend who ended his own life. Rich was 50 years old – a musician, a father, and a dear friend to many people. He would go out of his way to build bridges of connection, and to help friend and stranger alike. He was a spiritually grounded Christian who lived his faith with compassion, and he was not afraid to ask questions. He was a great dad taking great joy and pride in his sons antics and accomplishments.

Rich and I grew up in the same neighborhood. His older sister and I shared classes throughout elementary school and participated in the same Girl Scout troop. He dated my younger sister during high school. There was a story about me he loved to share every year on the second Tuesday of November. It was on such a Tuesday in November 1984 that I asked him if he had voted yet. He had turned 18 that year and I wanted to make sure he got off to a good start exercising his civic duty. He told me he had no transportation to get to the polls. So, I bundled up my 1-month old son, and escorted Rich to my car and off we went to the polls. He never missed an election after that day.

I dreaded going to the memorial service. I am not a Christian, though I fully embrace the teachings of Jesus and strive to live into his greatest commandment to love God with all my heart, and to love my neighbors as I love myself. I dreaded what might be said from the pulpit at his memorial – that his act of ending his own life would either not be named at all; or, worse, that a judgmental preacher would condemn his gentle, compassionate, loving, faithful soul to Hell. To my great relief, neither of these things happened. It was a very healing service.

Rich’s minister knew him very well. He knew of his deep struggle with depression. His minister talked honestly and openly about this mental health issue that plagues so many of us (myself included). His theological response to the state of Rich’s soul was that once someone has been baptized and accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they are forgiven. Period. Without even asking, they are forgiven. Phew!

While this is not my theology, the outcome is the same in my understanding of who we are in relation to the divine. As a Unitarian Universalist, I don’t hold a concept of Heaven or Hell, just the Here and Now. I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic divinity who determines our fate either in life or in death. But I do embrace stories, myths, and metaphors for understanding deeper truths about how we are to live our lives and live that great commandment.

The minister used the art of story and metaphor to help the congregation understand how depression wears someone down to the point where they can believe they have no choice left but to die. He used the story of Saul and the Philistines to describe the relentless attacks on our sense of hope, joy, and purpose that can come at us from all sides. The Philistines are all the events, circumstances, chemical imbalances, perceptions, and challenges that can make us feel hopeless and trapped in the box of depression. He described the depressed worldview that can no longer see things the way others might see them … what might look like a bump in the road to a close friend, may appear as an insurmountable mountain range to the person living with depression.

I spoke with Rich’s pastor after the service. He told me about this video created by the World Health Organization about the Black Dog of depression … a term coined by Winston Churchill in describing this “companion” he lived with. I offer it here for others to understand more about this debilitating disease. I had a black dog; his name was Depression.

Those of us who suffer from depression employ all our resources to keeping the lights on and not allowing those walls and shadows to overwhelm. Coping mechanisms can include spiritual practices, physical activity, political or social activism, medication, and/or therapy. And, sometimes, even with all that we bring to the battlefield, sometimes the Philistines win the war.

Unitarian Universalist singer-songwriter Carolyn McDade wrote “Come Sing a Song With Me,” a song I love dearly. The chorus goes like this: “And I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find, and I’ll bring a song of love and a rose in the wintertime.” Finding hope is often hard, especially for one like me who lives in the Here and Now and does not look toward a future beyond this life for eternal life and hope. Hope is something we have to walk toward and work for together, in community, through connections. It doesn’t come in isolation.

Since the election, many of my friends and colleagues have shared how they are seeing a rise in depression and loss of hope as we watch the values we uphold as Unitarian Universalists being attacked by this new administration; values such as affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of all people, justice, equity and compassion in human relations, and the interdependent web of life in which we are inextricably interconnected.

I don’t know if suicides are on the rise, but I know activism is certainly escalating. People who were never active in civic matters are making calls, writing letters, showing up, and working to bring hope to those who will most feel the effects of the actions of this administration. People in privileged populations are reaching out to traditionally oppressed communities with support and solidarity… bringing a song of love. This is one way we can bring hope to others. What else can we do to bring one another hope?

I will miss reading Rich’s Facebook post urging people to go vote this November. I’m sorry I didn’t make the time to visit him (he was just 45 minutes away in Athens). I wish I had known that he was suffering … not that I have any illusions that I could have prevented this, but because he was a person worth spending time with. Any time someone I love dies, I recommit myself to life. Rich’s death reminds me to recommit myself to spending time with people I love, and building and strengthening connections to those whom I want to know well.


Transcendent Moments

Many precious memories were created during my time in Japan, but two experiences stand out. Two transcendent moments that left me longing for more, and wondering how to create for others.

The first was at the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. It was the day before New Years Eve, a time when people from all over Japan enjoy a long holiday and embark on their annual journeys to the shrines. In other words, it was crowded! Amidst the bustling, noisy crowds the most beautiful music came to my ears. I followed the sound waves to a stage like structure where a large crowd of people stood. On the stage were two women in traditional kimonos doing a very slow, peaceful, graceful, beautiful dance to the music. The music was created by a woman at the back of the stage playing a koto and singing.

I stood completely mesmerized, gradually working my way to the front of the crowd as people moved on. Something in the combination of the music and the dance touched something very deep within my soul. I wept for the beauty of it. No pictures or video were allowed, which is just as well. I needed to be fully immersed in the moment of this beauty. Here is a link to something similar I found on YouTube.

The second transcendent experience also took me by surprise. The next day we visited Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple. We arrived shortly before 4:00, just a couple of hours before our train was boarding to return to Tokyo. It was New Year’s Eve and shops were already closing up. Soon after we arrived at the temple, it appeared as if they were closing up, so I rushed to get my shoes off and enter the temple before they closed the last door. Fortunately, my traveling companions made it in as well.

I moved towards the front of the space and sat on the mats to take in the feeling and beauty of the space. I thought I would just sit for a few minutes of peaceful meditation, then move on to the next building with the others in my group as we had agreed we would not spend too much time here. But then I watched as over a dozen monks slowly entered the shrine area of the temple in front of me. They sat in a row there as a ritual unfolded before us … a ritual I didn’t understand, and didn’t feel a need to know. Two older monks, with more elaborate robes, slowly came out and sat near the shrine. After all the monks and attendants were in place, they began chanting. Beautiful, resonating chant that filled me with a deep sense of peacefulness. I sat full immersed in the moment. Again, moved to tears by the depth of the experience.

Since those experiences I feel a deep yearning for more. Where are those opportunities in the area in which I live? The closest I know of is the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Lawrenceville, Georgia. I have been to their daily darshan worship services three times, and each time I get a glimpse of what I experienced in Japan. So that’s one possibility.

I am also asking myself the question, “How can we create such transcendent moments in our UU worship services or in any worship service for that matter?” Since returning from Japan, I’ve been exploring worship in other houses of worship. So far I’ve been to an Episcopal Service of Baptism Sunday worship and a United Methodist Contemporary Worship service. These were both relatively small congregations, not unlike the UU Congregation of Gwinnett. Although the people were warm and friendly, the music was good, and the messages were inspiring, I found no space for the transcendent. That’s one element I think is necessary for transcendent moments … space.

I have experienced this in UU worship, and in other “traditional” worship services, mostly through the music. I remember a professional violinist playing her heart out with such grace, enthusiasm, and love that I felt my spirit soaring as the music embraced me. I can recall hearing someone’s personal testimony of their faith that gripped my heart and moved me to tears.

For me, transcendent moments are those precious times in which the rest of the world disappears. There is nothing else that needs to be done or said, no where to go; awareness of the rest of the world seems to slip away for a precious brief time.

These are wonderful moments, but so what? Why seek these experiences? Why seek to create these moments for others? How do they make the world a better place?

Transcendent moments, in my experience, remind us that we are inextricably interconnected, and interdependent, with all of life, all of existence. They renew my faith in humanity and our ability to generate beauty. One definition of evil is the destruction of beauty, and I see this everywhere around me. The antidote is the creation of beauty. This can be as simple as a smile, as complex as a work of art, as graceful as a ballet, or as poetic as a Japanese dance.

What moves you to a place of transcendence and beauty? How are you making the world more beautiful?