As Unitarian Universalists, our first two principles guide us to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every person and to strive for justice, equity and compassion in human relations. As members of First UU of San Diego specifically, we are adopting the 8th principle, which spells out that we are working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions. Dismantling white supremacy is not a niche activity that some members of our congregation get to do in our spare time, like participating in the choir or joining the Friends of de Benneville Pines. Dismantling white supremacy is also not limited to responding to acts of overt oppression, such as participating in a counter-protest of a Proud Boys rally. Dismantling white supremacy means that we, as Unitarian Universalists, all need to work to identify inherent biases in ourselves and our fellow congregants, and hold each other accountable for microaggressions perpetuated and for any behaviors that do not help us to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community.
The assault that occurred in between 2020’s MLK services contained two classic microaggressions that continue to not be addressed. The assaulted member of our congregation, Honor Bell, III, 1) was assumed to not be a member of our congregation and 2) had their physical space disrespected and was subjected to an unwanted hold while being told that racism did not exist. In his attempted apology, which was sent in an email from Reverend Kathleen on December 18th, Len Pellettiri claims that he simply wanted to give Honor a warm welcome and attract them to his church. At the time, Honor was not at all a new member of our congregation and in fact was serving as a member of JTW and had participated in service before. Until Honor took part in the MLK service, however, they were unseen by Len. This can be brushed off as an innocent mistake, or it can be acknowledged as a common bias where people of color are treated with less consideration and made to feel invisible; Black people who are recurring participants in our congregation have repeatedly reported being assumed to be newcomers by well-meaning white people. The “warm welcome” mentioned in the letter involved Honor being physically restrained in order to be told that racism no longer existed. The denial of the existence of racism and erasure of a person's lived experiences is another example of one of the microaggressions that people of color experience all the time. Racism still very clearly exists, and it is part of our calling as UUs to not only acknowledge that fact, but to work to dismantle it. One way we work to dismantle racism is by holding each other accountable.
Apologizing is a form of accountability, but there was no accountability in the letter that was sent out on December 18th. An apology is only effective if it actually apologizes for one’s impact. A good apology not only involves saying that you’re sorry for your impact without qualifications, but also addresses how your behavior will change as a result of acknowledging the damage of your impact in an effort to minimize harm in the future.
A good apology is also timely. This incident of harm took place on January 19th, 2020, and was made public on June 28th, yet took until December 18th to only partially be addressed. It is difficult for healing to occur when the wound is allowed to fester for so long and scab over. For this, we must hold both Len and the church accountable. In Reverend Kathleen’s e-mail, she states that we are working on a model that centers the person who has experienced harm and is about repairing the harm done. By not making repairing this harm a priority, and by framing what Len wrote as an acceptable apology for this incident, the church failed to center the person who has experienced harm. The letter that was sent seems to try to avoid conflict with the white congregant and to assume that his good intentions were enough: but such actions are clearly described in the Widening The Circle document as upholding dominant white culture. White supremacy does not come apart cleanly or easily. Dismantling this dominant culture is messy and will uncover some uncomfortable feelings, but we are called by our spirituality to do this work, messy as it may be.
Many have responded to the letter by asking if Honor is satisfied and can move on. After nearly a year of this issue not being fully addressed, Honor certainly may be willing to move on, but not because the harm was repaired. After all, they already moved on from our church because of this act and other instances that made them feel unwelcome here. If we as a congregation are really working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community, then we must do so with honest, timely accountability, and we must do a better job of listening “twice as much as to talk” when our congregants of color speak up. In the future, we hope for clear protocols for reporting and repairing such incidents in a timely manner. Restorative Justice is a specific system of community accountability that involves holding restorative circles as a means of conflict resolution. I look forward to continuing to participate in the Restorative Justice training that is occurring within the Collective, which includes the Ministerial team, Board, and JTW, and learning how this new model of Restorative Justice and Repair will be implemented in our church, and helping with the process in JTW. We acknowledge that it is a work in progress, but much more progress needs to be made than what was offered in the recent apology.
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