Widening the Circle
September 6, 2020
Rev. Maddie Sifantus
Indeed our survival and liberation depend upon our recognition of the truth when it is spoken and lived by the people. If we cannot recognize the truth, then it cannot liberate us from untruth. To know the truth is to appropriate it, for it is not mainly reflection and theory. Truth is divine action entering our lives and creating the human action of liberation.
~ James Cone
How do we widen our circle as Unitarian Universalists? How do we respond to the times we find ourselves in with so many things clamoring for our attention, from Black Lives Matter to COVID-19 to Climate Change that we are so aware of this morning where it is already nearly 100 degrees on this Sunday of Labor Day Weekend? What are we called to do here a UUCSP and how do we keep our community together and strong during these times? What are we called to do as an Association of Congregations? How do we keep a center in these increasingly challenging times that we witness on the stages of our nation, during this time when we here have been lighting a candle for the violence in our streets and the deaths from COVID for many months now? How do we address the report of the Commission on Institutional Change, Widening the Circle of Concern? What IS this report, you may ask?
First , we need to know what this Commission is and what they were charged to do on our behalf: The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Commission on Institutional Change was charged with supporting long-term cultural and institutional change that redeems the essential promise and ideals of Unitarian Universalism. It was appointed by the UUA Board of Trustees in 2017 for a period of two years with an extension granted in 2018, and the Commission was in place through June 2020. Much of what I did during this year’s General Assembly, which, of course, was all on Zoom, was watch a number of different presentations by the folks who prepared the report. There is a LOT in it and I am only barely introducing it today, hoping that you read some of it online where it can be found, attend discussions in the future or buy your own copy of the report.
This group was charged to “conduct an audit of the power structures and analyze systemic racism and white supremacy culture” with our Unitarian Universalist Association. As you might imagine, this was no small task and not without its detractors. Personally, I believe we owe a great debt of gratitude to the eight members of the Commission, including its chair, the Rev. Leslie Takahashi. It is beyond the scope of my words this morning to present all its findings, but we will be coming back to it on Sundays during the year and it will show up in other ways during the coming year and beyond. Rev. Leslie tells me that there will be a discussion guide for congregations to use. She has also put me in touch with Paula Cole Jones from the 8th Principle Project so we can find out more where that stands.
Today in my Reflection on this very hot morning, I am just introducing it, adding it to the previous sermons and reflections on Centering I have given the last going on six years and to Erik Halseth and Mathew P. Taylor’s introduction of the 8th Principle Project which I have mentioned in passing before and which Erik talked about last week in his excellent sermon which I have posted to the website. I encourage you to read it.
But I do have to say as a seven-year member of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA, that group which credentials our ministers and for which I am right now preparing for our Fall Meeting in my eighth year of service, I am quite familiar with the trends in our association and the challenges that our black, indigenous, people of color and other vulnerable groups have had historically with what the former Chair of the MFC, Jesse King, has called the “weaponized gate” that the MFC had been in the past. I personally can remember the difficulties that my fellow community ministers, ministers of color and LGBTQ+ folks had back in the day, since I have been in Unitarian Universalism since 1980. I was on the front lines of community ministry widening the vision of our ministries. In fact I had an email from former MFC chair Wayne Arnason this week who said in part that I was understood by earlier leaders as “a colleague and fellow religious professional but one who had to fight her way in.” I was able to do that because I don’t give up easy and also because I am aware that I had the privilege of my white skin and middle class background that allowed me to stay at the table, fighting the battle to get fellowship (not that I love Wayne’s military imagery.”) Others I knew did not have that privilege in the late 90s and into the new Millennium. And it always seemed like for each step forward, there were two steps back.
But I have hope. I always say that, as a minister, I am in the hope business, however difficult that seems right now. And still I have hope in my last year of service on the committee and into the future, as I have seen positive change and that it will continue into the future of our denomination. Part of that hope these days comes from the work of this Commission, the depth of their assessment, and its recommendations. I believe that if we study this report and grapple with white supremacy culture we all swim in we can be part of that anti-oppressive, anti-racist and multicultural future many of us have working on for years, if not our whole lives. We are called to widen our circle of concern and “look forward to a time when accountability, multicultural awareness, and inclusive language are becoming the new normal…” The Commission believes…in fact is convinced…that “what is at stake is nothing less than the future of our faith.” 
One of the things I love about this report is the grounding by the Commission of the work in our Theology as Unitarian Universalists, in “addressing the perennial problem of race in Unitarian Universalism…as a theological mandate.” As part of this effort, “theologians among us have begun to articulate what a liberation theology could look like for Unitarian Universalists.” What would be that grounding in truth that would work for a faith such as ours? How would that inform the effort for us to be a liberatory faith? Too really live out the Seven Principles we affirm and many of us live our lives by…maybe adding an 8th Principle.
Liberation theology is nothing new; it’s been taught in seminaries for decades now. James Cone has said, as you can see from the top of your Order of Service this morning and which was included in the report, “Indeed our survival and liberation depend upon our recognition of the truth when it is spoken and lived by the people. If we cannot recognize the truth, then it cannot liberate us from untruth. To know the truth is to appropriate it, for it is not mainly reflection and theory. Truth is divine action entering our lives and creating the human action of liberation.” How can our living tradition keep up with the times? Whose truth are we talking about?
UU theologian Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor, who taught the course in UU Theology I took in seminary, has said, “Liberation theology speaks to the ‘underside of history’ and offers perspectives on issues, such as poverty and oppression, that we might otherwise miss. This is especially important as we respond to social problems. To be in solidarity with those who are oppressed requires empathy and imagination.” Liberation theology points to what we have been missing. It calls us into a place of doing the work we need to do to create that world of justice, equity and compassion which is our intention and aspirational.
The report is divided into ten focus areas which end with recommendations and actions. The areas start and are intentionally grounded by Theology but include Governance, Congregations and Communities, Religious Professionals and more. The MFC has worked with the Commission and others doing this work for many years and take this report seriously. This morning I am mentioning just the recommendations from the Chapter on Theology, in awareness of the heat of this day. So bear with me just a little bit longer before we begin again, building a new way. Here are some of the recommendations from the report and the actions they point to for us.
Re-engaging with our theological legacy and its use today will both ground our efforts to welcome all who are drawn to our faith and provide resources for resilience for Unitarian Universalists in these difficult times.
- Action: Center the theological work of Black scholars, Indigenous scholars, and scholars of color, both professional and lay, whose knowledge is resonant for our times.
- Action: Provide more resources for lay leaders who wish to engage in theological conversation.
- Action: Equip our theological schools to engage in the work of continued education.
- Action: Form collaboration between our theological schools, Association of congregations, and professional associations to develop resources for professionally applicable theological training.
Reinterpretation of our theological legacies in these times should be liberatory and articulate our commitment to affirming and welcoming those who have been marginalized in our larger society and within our communities and organizations.
- Action: Resource multigenerational efforts within Black/Indigenous/people of color communities to develop rituals of healing and other worship materials to be used in congregations, regions, and national gatherings.
- Action: Direct resources toward UU theological schools and scholars engaged in theological exploration focused on an understanding of the need for the affirmation and protection of all.
- Action: Provide ministers, religious educators, and other religious professionals with access to continuing education that helps them take in and teach new theological concepts.
Acknowledgment of anti-oppression work as a theological mandate is essential. We need to resurrect, research, document, and teach the words of Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, women, and others who have been largely lost though their presence has been with us throughout history. These constitute a valuable tool for our times.
- Action: Further incorporate and reclaim accounts of Universalist, Unitarian, and Unitarian Universalist leaders of color and Indigenous descent in Tapestry of Faith resources to serve a more diverse children and youth population.
- Action: Encourage collaboration between the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, Association for Unitarian Universalist Music Ministries, and Liberal Religious Educators Association on a virtual library of resources for liberatory worship anchored in cross-cultural competency.
- Action: Develop standards for ethical cross-cultural uses of worship materials from other traditions, and those previously developed by the Council for Cross-Cultural Engagement should be updated and discussed by religious professional associations.
Education about the covenantal nature of our faith will allow communities to support and nurture one another as the overall US climate becomes more hostile to and disinterested in a life of faith.
- Action: Provide support from regions to prioritize developing congregational covenants tied to mission and goals and including aspirations for equity, inclusion, and diversity.
- Action: Spread promising practices around addressing disruptive people and microaggressions as a barrier to covenantal community.
- Action: Develop resources for training on engagement with, rather than avoidance of, conflict as a part of change and transformation.
How do we plan our engagement here at UUCSP? If you have ides talk to me or come to our Social Concerns Action Committee. The next one is this Wednesday at 4:00 PM. Join in the Walking Each Other Home discussion led by Kate English this Thursday at 7 PM. The registration information was in you Friday eblast. Stay tuned for information about the new virtual version of Beloved Conversations which is launching this fall. Join in UU the Vote.
How can we take care of each other and build a new way that widens our circle of concern, that draws a wider circle. Circles are also a symbol of wholeness and unity. One of my favorite anthems to sing is Draw the Circle Wide:
“Draw the circle, Draw the circle wide,
Draw the circle, Draw the circle wide.
No one stands alone, We’ll stand side by side.
Draw the circle, Draw the circle wide.” 
It is based on this quote from Edwin Markham:
“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!”
Let us draw a wide circle. Let’s widen our circle of concern. May it be so. Blessed be. Amen
Please join me in building a new way.
 Widening the Circle of Concern (2020). UUA, 4-5.
 Ibid., vii.
 Words: Gordon Light, Music: Mark Miller. Abingdon Press.