Pastoral Note: The Unacceptable Revolving Door of BIPOC Religious Professionals and Congregants

by the Reverend Manish Mishra-Marzetti, DRUUMM Lead Chaplain

Dear members of DRUUMM’s extended family,

I hope this spring season finds each of you well. As DRUUMM’s Lead Chaplain, I’ve been holding some sadness related to the ongoing pattern of BIPOC professionals and congregants leaving our UU congregations, and at times Unitarian Universalism altogether. The specifics in each individual case may be different, and the specifics matter, but at the end of the day we are left with a pattern that is recognizable and familiar: those who began congregational journeys with joy and earnestness are left feeling disillusioned, frustrated, and without community. I wish that I could tell you that this pattern is new or recent. It is not. This pattern is so familiar that on some conscious or subconscious level it has become anticipated at the systemic level; the pattern is not a surprise, even though this pattern is awful. I, for one, have personally witnessed and/or experienced first-hand this pattern within Unitarian Universalism for at least a quarter of a century, and it breaks my heart. I have wept at the loss from our movement of dear friends and colleagues more times than I can even recount.

Those of us who identify as BIPOC enter our UU communities often aware that there are potential risks and the potential for personal harm, and yet – with commitment, courage, and heart – we choose to do so anyway. Given that, how do we then honor those individuals who choose to take a break from active UU engagement, for one’s own health and well-being? There is an honoring and a holding that may be needed; as a pastoral expression of our collective love and appreciation. What might that look like? How might we live into that? Your ideas are welcome, and we in DRUUMM can help one another live into this critical need to honor one another’s humanity, courage, and vulnerability.

And, we must collectively do better. Simply honoring and recognizing those who need to move aside for a spell, or longer, is not enough. Recently, I have been studying the U.S. civil rights movement, and have noticed the way that this movement was continuously learning and adjusting its strategies in accordance with that learning. I wonder how we BIPOC UUs might do the same.

This is not as straightforward a possibility as it might seem on the surface. Unitarian Universalism can, at times, undermine the learning loop that can fuel our ability to strategize collectively. As any newer BIPOC Unitarian Universalist can testify, we encounter the ‘new, shiny penny syndrome’ through which the systems around us convince us (BIPOC lay leader and professional alike) that we are extraordinary; that we are the most exciting, invigorating, and special thing that Unitarian Universalism as ever encountered, and as such there is no way that the decades-long pattern of eventual reactivity, resistance, and rejection will ever happen to us.

Until it does. And, by then, it’s often too late, and/or we are stuck with feelings of embarrassment and/or disillusionment: the ‘thing’ that was never supposed to happen to us – since the system convinced us how special and unique we are – is somehow happening to us. Now what? To whom can we confide that things are rough and we’re not sure what to do about it? This pattern, and the psychological underpinnings of it, are heartbreakingly all too familiar to me; I have lived it.

What if instead of allowing this crushing pattern to continue – somehow ‘surprising’ successive waves of BIPOC leaders – we did what our forebearers from the 1940s-1960s did? What if we create strategy-focused training/support programs and strategy-focused networking opportunities led by experienced BIPOC UU leaders to support the energized and needed leadership of those who are newer? How might we strategize, learn, and grow together, supporting one another while advancing the work?

This is not an unreachable dream; this is highly doable. But, such possibilities require a sense of togetherness – that we are all, each and every one of us, in this struggle for greater equality and equity together. It would invite those who are newer among us to recognize the insidious systemic pattern of treating newer BIPOC congregants and religious professionals like coveted shiny pennies. It requires mutual respect and trust between long-timers who may be a bit exhausted by patterns and newer BIPOC leaders who, because of the shiny penny syndrome, don’t always know what mentoring and/or guidance they might need.

This is where structures that support ongoing relationship, across experience levels – for both BIPOC professionals and lay leaders – could support our community well. Finding Our Way Home (FOWH) isn an excellent example of such a structure for BIPOC religious professionals, and we need similar structures and support for our BIPOC lay leaders. Within such structures, how might we deepen our work together around collective strategy, intentionally strategizing about how to work with the most frequently encountered challenges and how we might also collectively further systemic change that reduces harm? What are our collective asks? What are the next concrete steps that our community needs to see happen? This type of collective strategizing is doable, and we should want this.

We may still need to grieve BIPOC beloveds who decide to move on from our local communities or from Unitarian Universalism altogether, but I hope and pray that we might collectively live into a commitment to break these insidious, decades-old patterns with the strength of our commitment and the very best strategic thinking that we can muster.

With much love for each and every member of our DRUUMM extended family,

Rev. Manish Mishra-Marzetti